View Full Version : The hunt for Iraq's lost treasure

11-21-05, 06:29 AM
The hunt for Iraq's lost treasure

When thousands of antiquities were looted from Baghdad's Iraq museum, US marine Matthew Bogdanos pledged to get them back. After two years of sleuthing, he has become a national hero. Julian Borger reports

Monday November 21, 2005
The Guardian

On April 15, 2003, in the Iraqi city of Basra, an enraged British journalist whose name has been lost to history stormed up to a US marine colonel and his men and denounced them as "macho *******s". The colonel had been looking for weapons and cash left behind by the ousted Iraqi regime, but this reporter believed fiercely that he should be more concerned that "the finest museum in the world has just been looted".

By a peculiar turn of fate, she had stumbled on the one person in the whole of modern Mesopotamia who both cared deeply about the cultural calamity at Baghdad's Iraq museum and possessed the expertise, determination and clout to do something about it. His name was Matthew Bogdanos - a Greek-American classics scholar and a New York prosecutor, whose toughness and tenacity had earned him the nickname "pit bull" even before he went off to fight the "war on terror".

Colonel Bogdanos cannot remember the name of the reporter who vented her frustration at him, but she appears to have set off an extraordinary train of events. Five days after the encounter, he had overcome the objections of his superior officers and was at the gates of the Baghdad museum, heading a mixed bag of volunteer soldiers and investigators, ready to hunt down Iraq's lost legacy.

What followed over the next two years was an epic feat of wartime sleuthing which took Bogdanos along a trail from pitch-black underground chambers and submerged bank vaults in Baghdad to the sleek antiquity dealerships of Madison Avenue, in pursuit of lost treasures with Harry Potterish names, such as the Sacred Vase of Warka. Along the way, more than 5,000 artworks, including unique pieces from the first fluttering of civilisation, were recovered. Bogdanos left active duty in the marines last month, but he is still on the hunt for the thousands of objects still unaccounted for. When he returns to the Manhattan district attorney's office, where he worked before the September 11 attacks, he has permission, he says, to set up a new arts and antiquities unit.

The story so far is told in his new book, Thieves of Baghdad, the royalties from which will go back to the Iraq museum. It traces his path from poring over the Iliad while helping out at his father's Greek restaurant as a boy, to prosecuting Puff Daddy in New York, to the turning point of September 11. His apartment was a few hundred yards from the North Tower and his family was lucky to survive its collapse. As a marine reservist, he immediately volunteered for active duty and his investigative skills were rapidly put to use in Afghanistan, tracking down Taliban documents, including an all-important membership ledger. He followed the action to Iraq, his fateful meeting with the contemptuous British reporter and his present incarnation as a marine corps Indiana Jones.

These days, Bogdanos is feted as a hero in Washington. Ten days ago, he was in the Oval Office where George Bush ("appreciative and knowledgeable") awarded him the National Humanities Medal. All the acclaim notwithstanding, Bogdanos gives the impression of boiling with anger from the first hello. He launches into a tirade against media reports of the looting (including the Guardian's account) which exaggerated the number of stolen objects, claiming 170,000 were missing. According to Bogdanos the figure was less than a tenth of that. And he is still infuriated by the suggestion that, as he puts it, "Coalition forces stood idly by as looters ransacked the museum." That, he insists, "is simply and undeniably factually inaccurate".

Between April 10 and 12 2003, when most of the thefts took place, Bogdanos says the museum was being used as a redoubt by Iraqi Special Republican Guard troops. "It simply could not have been secured without a battle that would have been devastating, or blood loss that would have been criminal on the part of the commander on the ground," he says.

On the other hand, and with an equal measure of outrage, Bogdanos holds the US forces responsible for taking four days to arrive at the museum after the management's appeal for help on April 12. "It's not sinister. It's not evil. It's inexcusable," he says. In those four days, he says, the museum's Iraqi curators kept the thieves of Baghdad at bay themselves, but much of the damage had already been done.

Half an hour into the interview, Bogdanos is still fighting mad, and it is clear that enraged bellowing is his default mode of communication. A truly accurate transcript of our interview would have to be entirely in capital letters, punctuated with multiple exclamation and question marks, and occasionally hyphenated to show where he slows down, as if instructing a raw teenage recruit. Is he always so hot under the collar? "Injustice always angers me," he replies.

Bogdanos believes there were three classes of robber at work: looters who cleared museum shelves at random; professionals who knew what they were looking for, perhaps taking orders from foreign dealers; and inside operators - employees or ex-employees who knew where particular treasures were hidden, using the chaos of the war as a cover to grab them.

The distinction between the second and third group is somewhat blurred, but Bogdanos presents compelling evidence that inside knowledge was involved. He followed the robbers' footprints into an underground storage room that had been bricked off from the rest of the museum, where an acrid stench suggested they had had to work in darkness, burning improvised torches. Somehow the thieves had found their way to a hidden set of keys and used them to open lockers containing a unique collection of ancient cylindrical seals. By some fluke, however, the keys had been dropped halfway through the heist and the thieves had been unable to recover them in the smoke-filled murk. They fled before they found the collection of gold coins, which survives almost intact.

Perhaps more surprising than the number of treasures stolen was the number brought back. One of the first steps decided upon, was when Bogdanos and the museum authorities declared an amnesty with no questions asked and a cup of tea for anything returned. The colonel and his men fanned out into the Baghdad bazaars and spread the word. Antiquities soon started turning up at the museum gates. One car delivered 94 artifacts. By the time Bogdanos left, 1,952 missing pieces had been handed back. "There isn't one single reason for it," he says. "You name it: fear of getting caught, conscience, recognition that they were no longer stealing from Hussein but stealing from themselves . . . There are 1,952 reasons."

The network of informants Bogdanos built up in the bazaar led his men to other finds. The Mask of Warka, a 3100BC limestone mask thought to be the earliest surviving naturalistic depiction of a human face, was found buried on a farm north of Baghdad. A precious statue was found wrapped and submerged in a septic tank.

The most valuable pieces, however, are already likely to be tucked away in private collections in the US and Europe, but Bogdanos thinks there are still ways to get them back. "If you are willing to spend $20, $30, $40m for a piece of alabaster with funny writing on it that you can never publicly acknowledge owning and never show off, the first thing you are going to want to know is if that piece is authentic," he says. "Are you going to take the dealer's word that it's real? Are you going to take a graduate student's word for it? No, you're going to get the head of a department, the head of a museum or someone who is published in the field."

So the focus of the hunt moves now from Baghdad to New York, where Bogdanos will set up his new investigative unit. Meanwhile, he is playing it cool, fielding offers from Hollywood for his story. Any film, he insists, would have to advance his central aim - getting the lost art back. "If it's going to be done in pure Indiana Jones style, then it's not going to advance the ball. But if it's going to be done seriously and intelligently, but as fun as well, then I'm for it," he barks. "I love movies. I loved Indiana Jones".