March-April 2008


April 10 was the fifth anniversary of the break-in at the Iraq National Museum in Baghdhad. John Curtis, who is Keeper of the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, marked the occasion by publishing a piece in the Sunday Times (“Who stole Iraq’s priceless treasures?”, April 13), and he was also interviewed in the March issue of the Art Newspaper (“The situation at the Baghdad Museum remains bleak but looting of archaeological sites is decreasing”). Curtis recalled the events of 2003 and described again the damage caused to the site of Babylon by the Coalition military base that was established there during the invasion. About 12 trenches, the largest 170 m long, and other cuttings were dug through archaeological deposits, and around 300,000 m2 of the site had been covered with gravel to provide landing and parking facilities. The Coalition handed the base over to Iraq in late 2004. Although his overall tone was despondent, Curtis was able to offer some good news. He suggested that the incidence of archaeological looting in southern Iraq is beginning to decline, which he thinks is partly due to the efforts of Dr Abbas al-Husseini, who was appointed Director of Antiquities in 2006 (thought since resigned), and also because the market is probably in decline. Iraq’s Department of Antiquities has reached agreement with the World Monuments Fund and the Getty Conservation Institute to repair some of the damage at Babylon.
Donny George, Abbas al-Husseini’s predecessor as Director of Antiquities, also had a piece in the March Art Newspaper, discussing the fate of the Victory Monument in central Baghdad (“Saddam’s statues should not be destroyed”). The Victory Monument comprises two 40 m high arches, each arch constructed from two crossed metal swords crossed and held by giant hands. It was built to commemorate the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War, and cast from the melted weapons of dead Iraqi soldiers. Surrounding the base are 5,000 Iranian helmets. Some moves were made in 2003 to destroy this monument because it was erected by Saddam Hussein, but George thinks it should be spared because of its aesthetic importance and the fact that it is a war memorial.
Elizabeth Stone of the State University of New York Stony Brook published an analysis of archaeological looting in south Iraq using high resolution satellite imagery (“Patterns of looting in southern Iraq”, Antiquity 82, 125-38). She estimates that something like 15.75 km2 have been intensively looted, “an area much greater than all archaeological investigations ever conducted in southern Iraq”. Key findings are:
  • A survey of 1,947 sites ranging in area between 0.1 and 600 ha shows that sites of all sizes have been looted, though the larger sites are more likely to have been targeted. Of the 1,039 sites recorded in the range 0.1-3.0 ha, 29 percent had been looted, compared to 90 percent of sites in the range 87.1-300 ha. Of the four sites with areas in excess of 300 ha (Uruk, Larsa, Lagash and Girsu), only Larsa has been badly damaged. The other three large sites had been protected from damage by local guards.
  • A study of 1,721 sites ranging in date from Early Ubaid to Late Islamic, many unexcavated and known only from surface material, shows that the incidence of looting is related to the marketability of site contents. Akkadian (cylinder seals), Ur III and Old Babylonian (cuneiform tablets) and Achaemenid and Parthian (coins) sites have been the most badly hit.
  • Repeat images were available for 213 sites, allowing some estimate to be made of the diachronic pattern of looting. It appears to have peaked in February 2003, just before the Coalition invasion, diminished somewhat after the commencement of hostilities, only to pick up again through summer and fall 2003, and falling off again since then. Stone suggests the market might now be saturated.
Some support for Stone’s suggestion was forthcoming from an interview conducted with Vernon Rapley, head of the Scotland Yard Art Squad (C. Hunt-Grubbe, “Heist society. Evidence is mounting that a global criminal network is behind the looting”, Sunday Times, April 13). Rapley thinks illegally-excavated artifacts are moved first to Bagdhad, then out of Iraq to adjacent countries like Jordan and Oman, and thence to London. However, he referred to “intelligence” indicating that the most important objects might be sold in or about Iraq so that the buyer must shoulder the risk of transporting them.
On April 30, the United States imposed import restrictions on Iraqi artifacts. According to a news release from the Department of State, the action was taken under the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004. The import restrictions apply to a broad range of material ranging in date from 6800 BC to AD 1258. The designated list was published in the Federal Register (vol. 73, no. 84, 23334-42).
For many years now Yemeni authorities have been struggling to contain the illegal excavation and export of archaeological artifacts. The reason Yemeni artifacts are in demand is not hard to find – the major auction houses routinely offer unprovenanced “South Arabian” or Sabaean alabaster reliefs and figures for sale. The Yemen News Agency (SABA) reported on March 1 that the inhabitants of Sharab al-Raunach in Taiz province had foiled an attempt to dig a local castle, and on March 12 police in Hajjah province arrested two people for attempting to sell the head of one statue and the torso of another. On April 19, Khalid al-Syaghi published an opinion piece (“Trafficking of Yemeni relics increases by the hand of absentminded authorities”, Yemen Observer), in which he observed that artifact smuggling had increased since the 1994 civil war. Also on April 19, it was announced that Qatar had agreed to support a large scale international campaign of archaeological exploration in Yemen that will continue until 2012, with a follow-up campaign planned to run until 2017 (“Twenty international archaeological experts to discover Yemeni relics”, Yemen Observer).
The exhibition Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces continued through March at Rome’s Palazzo Poli. The original 70 pieces which had been recovered from several US art museums were joined by a further nine artifacts returned to Italy by US collector Shelby White under the terms of an agreement reached in January. A further one artifact is to follow (E. Povoledo, “Repatriated art in Rome”, New York Times, March 29).
Also in March, a restored three-meter long fresco from a Roman villa buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 went on display at the Palazzo Massimo. It is believed to have been illegally removed from a wall of the villa in the 1970s. It was in Geneva in the early 1980s, before being taken to Brussels and finally Paris, where it was recovered in February from the house of collector and publisher Jacques Marcoux (“Stolen Vesuvian fresco on show”,, March 27).
The trial of Oded Golan continued through April. Golan stands accused of faking the Aramaic inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” on the so-called James Ossuary, and of faking or artificially augmenting several other artifacts, including the inscribed Jehoash tablet. The prosecution had hoped that Egyptian citizen and resident Marco Samah Shoukri Ghatas would be able to testify against Golan. Amir Ganor, who heads the Israel Antiquities Authority anti-theft unit, claims that Ghatas had confessed in Egypt that he had personally forged the Jehoash inscription, after sketches supplied by Golan. Ghatas also admitted to faking other objects to Golan’s specifications, though not the contested James Ossuary inscription. Ghatas did not appear in court. The prosecution claimed it was because the Egyptian authorities had prevented him from travelling, the defense countered that Ghatas had chosen of his own free will not to come (N. Shragai, “The art of authentic forgery”, Haaretz, April 14). However, already in March, a CBS 60 Minutes news team had interviewed Ghatas, when he had admitted to making artifacts to order for Golan (“The stone box and Jesus’ brother’s bones”, CBS News, March 23).
In April, approximately 100 Precolumbian artifacts were returned to Mexico from a US Customs storage facility in Dallas. The material derived from several separate seizures in Texas and New Mexico (D. Sollis, “Smuggled artifacts stored in Dallas customs vaults returned to Mexico”, Dallas Morning News, April 2).
Also in April, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported that Marilyn Skahan-Malatare, former curator of the Yakama Nation Museum (WA), and her daughter had pleaded guilty in a federal court to stealing $160,000 worth of artifacts. Most of the artifacts have been recovered (P. Ferolito, “Museum curator faces jail”, April 9). The Yakama Nation Museum opened in 1980 and is one of the oldest Native American museums in the country.
An article in the April issue of the Smithsonian was devoted to a theft from the National Archives (S. Twomey, “To catch a thief”). It came to light in September 2006 when Civil War historian Dean Thomas noticed letters belonging to Philadelphia’s Frankford Arsenal appearing for sale on eBay. The Frankford Arsenal had been a Union supplier, and Dean knew that the Arsenal documents had been deposited in the National Archives. Dean telephoned the archives and internal investigators took up the case. They discovered that the documents had been offered for sale by one Denning McTague, who had worked as an intern at the Philadelphia branch of the archives for two months earlier in 2006. In October 2006, the investigators raided McTague’s home in Philadelphia and recovered 88 documents. A further 73 had already been retrieved from eBay. Three more are thought to be still missing. McTague confessed to the theft and reimbursed all eBay buyers. In July 2007 he was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment. The Smithsonian article also listed several other thefts from the archives and other libraries.