|US lobby could threaten Iraqi heritage
Thursday April 10, 2003
Apparent lobbying by American art dealers to dismantle Iraq's strict
export laws has heightened fears about the looting of the country's
antiquities as order breaks down in the last stages of the war.
After the last gulf war a lot of treasures disappeared onto the black
market and archaeologists in Britain and the US are concerned this will be
repeated on a much larger scale in the power vacuum after the fall of
Saddam Hussein, as happened in Afghanistan. For poor Iraqis the temptation
to sell stolen antiquities will be greatly increased if it is known there
is a ready market in the west.
Iraq, which encompasses Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation, is so
rich in remains dating back 10,000 years that it has been described as one
vast archaeological site.
Dominque Collon, assistant keeper in the department of the ancient near
east at the British Museum, said today that alarm bells had been set
ringing by reports of a meeting between a coalition of antiquities
collectors and arts lawyers, calling itself the American Council for
Cultural Policy (ACCP), with US defence and state department officials
before the start of the war. The group offered help in preserving Iraq's
invaluable archaeological collections, but archaeologists fear there is a
hidden agenda to ease the way for exports post-Saddam.
The ACCP's treasurer, William Pearlstein, has described Iraq's laws as
"retentionist", and the group includes influential dealers who favour a
relaxation of the current tight restrictions on the ownership and export
Dr Collon said: "This is just the sort of thing that will encourage
looting. Once there is American blessing they have got a market for these
antiquities and it becomes open season. The last thing we want is condoned
The ACCP denied accusations of wanting to change Iraq's treatment of
antiquities and said at the January meeting they offered post-war
technical and financial assistance and conservation support.
This week an international group of archaeologists petitioned the UN and
Unesco, a cultural education body, to ensure that whatever body oversees
post-war Iraq takes steps to preserve its priceless heritage from
destruction and looting.
They urge that security personnel be posted throughout Iraq at its many
archaeological sites and museum storage facilities as soon as possible to
halt future thefts. "In the aftermath of the previous gulf war, Iraqi
archaeological sites and museum collections suffered from extensive
looting, the fruits of which continue to disappear into the international
black market for illegally procured antiquities," they say.
The archaeologists and scholars want their Iraqi colleagues to continue in
or be restored to their positions in museums, archaeological projects, and
The Iraqi antiquities authority should be offered the assistance of
specialists from around the world to begin restoration and preservation of
antiquities that have been damaged and the training of a new generation of
They add: "Whatever body oversees post-war Iraq [should] be ready to offer
material assistance to the Iraqi authorities and any concerned
international agency prepared to apprehend and prosecute persons
responsible for the theft and purchase of Iraqi cultural heritage
materials, and to strive for the recovery of those materials and their
restoration to the Iraqi people".