2003 looting of the Iraq National Museum


The Iraq National Museum was founded in 1923 and moved to its present location in 1966. It was enlarged in 1986. Before the 1991 Gulf War, close to 10,000 artifacts from prehistoric through Islamic periods were on display, though this constituted less than five percent of the museum’s total holdings. The National Museum and its collections survived the 1991 Gulf War intact, although its buildings suffered some damage from nearby bomb impacts. Its holdings were increased in the run-up to the 2003 war as material was moved there for safekeeping from Iraq’s regional museums.
            The museum closed to the public in March 2003, and most of the objects on display in the public galleries (8,366 in total) were moved to safe storage at a location known only to five members of staff, who swore on the Qur’an not to reveal its location. Large objects that couldn’t be moved were protected with foam rubber pads. There was some discussion as to whether the entrances to the museum should be bricked up, but it was decided this might impede emergency services in the event of fire.
            US forces had been criticized after the 1991 Gulf War for damaging archaeological sites in Iraq, and so on January 24, 2003, McGuire Gibson of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago accompanied a delegation from the American Council for Cultural Policy to the Department of Defense and provided the locations of four thousand (later increased to five thousand) archaeological sites that should be protected from military action in the event of war. Gibson also advised that looting would probably break out afterward. The Department of Defense replied that US troops were under orders not to damage archaeological and other cultural sites, and according to Gibson they made an effort not to do so. But the department also maintained that stopping Iraqi civilians from looting was not their business.
On March 19 2003, Coalition forces invaded Iraq. By April 5, they had reached the outskirts of Baghdad. On the same day, security guards evacuated the museum, and on April 8, Iraqi troops took up positions in the museum grounds. There is some dispute as to the identity of these troops, whether they were irregular Fedayeen or regular Republican Guard. Iraqi forces in the vicinity of the museum soon became embroiled in heavy fighting with US troops, which lasted for two days. The US commander on the spot chose not to attack the museum directly because of the damage that would be caused, and pulled his troops back.
            The first break-in at the museum occurred on Thursday, April 10, while fighting continued outside, and thieves had the run of the museum until returning museum staff chased them off on April 12, by which time fighting had died down. Museum staff put up a large sign announcing that the museum was under the protection of the US military, though it was not until April 16 that four US tanks arrived.
The museum thefts were sensationalised by the media reporting that followed. Wild estimates were made of the number of objects stolen, and stories began to circulate that US troops had deliberately not secured the museum so as to allow the theft of material “to order” for rich and politically influential collectors in the United States, and that they might even have participated in the plunder. A sense of reality was restored and a good assessment of losses made by the interim and then final reports of the investigation into the theft led by US Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos (2005a, b), who also offered a military explanation for why US troops did not move to secure the museum before April 12, and thus prevent the looting (Bogdanos 2005b, 204–6, 210–11).
The museum offices and laboratories were thoroughly ransacked, with equipment stolen or destroyed and safes emptied. Computers, cameras, telephones, air conditioners and office furniture were taken, together with a fleet of about forty cars. Files had been scattered but were recoverable.
Forty of the best quality display pieces that had not been moved out of the museum into safe storage were stolen, clearly by someone who recognised their significance (Bogdanos 2005b, 213). Several of those pieces seem to have been gathered together in advance of the theft and left in the museum’s restoration room, as if to facilitate their removal (Bogdanos 2005b, pp. 214–15). Because these high value pieces are recognizable they would not be easy to sell on the open market, which Bogdanos thought might imply there were already buyers in place before the theft (Bogdanos 2005b, 215). By 2008, 16 of these pieces had been recovered (Bogdanos 2008, 44).
A minimum of 3,138 objects were stolen from restoration and above-ground storage rooms, of which 3,037 had been recovered by January 2004, 1,924 via the amnesty program and 1,113 through seizures. In these rooms genuine objects had sometimes been ignored and copies were taken by mistake, which suggests that thieves had no real knowledge of what they were taking. Most of the pieces were handed back soon afterward as part of a local amnesty program, and Bogdanos believes the looting in this part of the museum was carried out by local people acting opportunistically.
There was also a theft from a basement storeroom that seems to have been pre-planned. There are four storerooms in the museum basement, but thieves headed straight for the room containing the museum’s collection of coins, cylinder seals and jewellery. In other words, the thieves knew in advance where to find the museum’s store of items that are small, valuable and portable. They were also equipped with keys to open the storage lockers, though luckily in the darkness and confusion they dropped the keys and the lockers remained secure. Nevertheless, the thieves did make off with 10,686 items that had been stored in boxes, including 5,144 cylinder seals. Bogdanos thought that this material was most likely directed to a middleman buyer who would be able to arrange its transport out of Iraq for subsequent dispersal on the international market (Bogdanos 2005b, 216). By January 2005, 2,307 of these pieces had been recovered.
Bogdanos, M., 2005a. “The casualties of war: the truth about the Iraq Museum”, American Journal of Archaeology, 109, 477–526.
Bogdanos, M., 2005b. Thieves of Baghdad. New York, Bloomsbury.