Mar 19, 2008

Insurgents Selling Antiquities in Iraq

The AP is reporting on the views of Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a participant in this weeks conference in Athens. Bogdanos is a New York assistant DA, and was instrumental in the efforts by US forces to undo much of the damage and looting which occurred when the invasion began.

He argued it was "undeniable" that extremist groups were using antiquities smuggling to gain funds. As he said, "the Taliban are using opium to finance their activities in Afghanistan... Well, they don't have opium in Iraq, what they have is an almost limitless supply of is antiquities. And so they're using antiquities." He even has heard from sources that Hezbollah is taxing antiquities.

The claim is open to speculation of course, because so much of the trade is hidden. However Bogdanos is a passionate and thoughtful advocate for the protection of Iraq's national heritage, and as such the Pentagon and World leaders would be wise to listen. The more attention the looting problem in Iraq receives the better. Unfortunately, the US and Europe are doing very little to prevent this smuggling or to protect archaeological sites in Iraq.

Sadly, I think antiquities from this region will be appearing on the market for decades to come, and as such buyers, who should perhaps know better, will be confronted with the same embarrassing legal and ethical questions which have plagued North American institutions in recent years in their acquisitions of antiquities from Southern Italy. Of course they can avoid this controversy by refusing to purchase potentially tainted objects.


Peter Tompa said...


This is not news, but is rather a restatement of old allegations from Bogdanos' book, rehashed in time for the 5th Anniversary of the Iraq War. What has not changed is that Bogdanos makes his grand claims with little hard evidence to support them. Let's get real. "Looted antiquities" are no where as liquid or as profitable as "hot oil" or monies received as ransom. Indeed, my recollection is that a recent US government report on funding sources for the insurgency in Iraq failed to mention "looted antiquities" at all.

In any event, here is what I said in a review of Bogdanos'book:

Bogdanos stereotypes collectors and dealers in manner that suggests he received a tutorial from some of the most “hard line” elements within the archaeological community. (p. 238.) Specifically, Bogdanos buys into the claim that some big ticket items were stolen based some long standing orders from moneyed collectors (p. 215) and then hypes a supposed link between collectors and terrorists. (p. 249.) It should give some pause to the reader that the source for the former allegation is none other than Ahmed Chalabi, the discredited purveyor of hyped information about weapons of mass destruction, while the latter claim appears to be based solely on one seizure of some 30 artifacts from some suspected insurgents. Again, Bogdanos would do well to heed his own warnings about the impact of exaggeration on the credibility of certain members of the archaeological community. (p. 274.)

In the end, Bogdanos sums up his view as follows: “One of the unpleasant truths to emerge from Baghdad is that, in assessing blame for the looting there, and for the confusion that followed, nobody gets off scot-free - not the military, not the press, not the law enforcement, not the archaeologists, not the former regime, and not the staff. And in the sale of stolen items, we find the same widespread distribution of guilt among scholars, museum directors, dealers and private collectors. ‘When everyone’s culpable, is anyone guilty?’” (p. 279.) While one might agree with this assessment up to a point, I for one wish Bogdanos would be far more careful before making sweeping accusations against collectors, dealers and museum directors. Indeed, because the much anticipated influx of stolen Iraqi artifacts into the western art market has yet to materialize; such claims seem to be nothing short of irresponsible. But then, again, Bogdanos has a book to sell, a new mission to set up a “stolen antiquities” unit in the Manhattan DA’s office, and even a movie in the works. Under the circumstances, a less provocative claim simply might not do.

For the full review, please see:

In short, while I appreciate Bogdanos' service to our country and his passion for the issue, I am concerned there is more than a little bit of 'self-promotion' behind all his efforts.


Peter Tompa

Unknown said...

Well, I reject your characterization of Bogdanos. Having met him, I think you're doing him a tremendous disservice. In particular I think you really miss the mark when you claim he's merely attempting to profit off this kind of coverage. He's said many times that he's donating the profits from his book to the Baghdad Museum.

You may have doubts about the merits of this claim, which I'll concede is a difficult one to substantiate. But ad hominem attacks aren't going to win any more supporters to your cause.

As to the substance of his claim, that insurgents are profiting off the antiquities trade, I think we do have substantial evidence that widespread looting is taking place in Iraq, not enough is being done to stop it, and these folks aren't getting objects to display for their personal benefit. Someone, somewhere must be willing to buy these objects.

Peter Tompa said...


Please do not take my comments out of context. I never said Bogdanos is "merely attempting to profit off this kind of coverage." What I said is that in my opinion there appears to be an element of self-promotion in his efforts. His book, the purported movie deal in the works, and his subsequent talks around the country and now in Greece at a repatriation conference (Did he pay his own way there?) speak for themselves in that regard.

I'm glad he has promised to give monies from his book to the Iraq Museum, but I've read somewhere that he has actually found this difficult to do because of bureacratic issues related to the Iraqi government. If so, hopefully the royalties he has collected are going to an equally worthy cause related to Iraqi archaeology.

In any event, when a public official takes such a public stance against collectors, dealers and museums complete with incendiary claims that collectors in effect support al-Qaida in Iraq by buying un-provenanced artifacts, I feel as a collector myself (of ancient coins), I have a right to raise some hard questions. If you think the concerns I raise are an "ad hominem" attack so be it, but I am very concerned that Mr. Bogdanos does everyone a disservice when he makes such claims based on few hard facts.

Presumably, there is still ongoing looting in Iraq, but I recall in a recent interview, John Curtiss of the BM indicated it is on the decline due to Iraqi Government outreach to tribal leaders. However, the fact that there may be ongoing looting does not in itself suggest that it is a major source of income for the insurgency. Certainly, what is undisputed is that few, if any, such antiquities are reaching markets in the West. As such, Bogdanos' claims are even more suspect, particularly if they form a basis for promoting a "guilty until proven innocent" view of collectors and museums.


Peter Tompa

Peter Tompa said...

I just noticed this roundtable interview on the AIA website from

It is relevant to this question of a link between looting and terrorism. The participants in this part of the discussion are Brian Rose of the AIA, a former military officer and a reporter who investigated the story:

Rose: Cori, from your perspective, when you were there, was there much discussion about whether the sale of artifacts was being used to fund the insurgency or fund al-Qaida in Iraq?

Wegener: Not as much at that time. I think it wasn't until after I had left, which was March 2004, that I really started to notice news stories about that and that that was a possibility. As I said, I was really pretty much focused on the museum for my part of the mission there.

Garen: I think this is an important point about the link between looting and terrorism, and I know that that was made in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, but we were actually the ones that discovered that potential link. We never published it. We were freelancing for the New York Times. We never wrote a story about it because there's no proof. And I think it was a bit of a red herring. You see slogans in support of the Madhi Army scrawled all over the archaeological sites, and stuff like that, but the connection was never a direct connection.

In other words, the looting was happening prior to the war, and the looting was happening after the war, and the looting was really about poverty and money. And whatever someone's political agenda was at the moment, it wasn't as if people were saying, "Ah, we're going to go out and loot and get money and then fight the Coalition." There were rumors of that, but there was never any proof of that, and I think that's a very politically charged thing to say, because it has very strong political implications when you say that looting is about terrorism. But it's not. Looting is not about terrorism. It's about money. It's a criminal activity. It's like the drug trade. I just want to make sure that's understood for the record

Don Thieme said...

Mica Garen quoted by peter tompa - Looting is "a criminal activity. It's like the drug trade. I just want to make sure that's understood for the record."

The same is true, of course, for trading in artifacts looted from archaeological sites.

Peter Tompa said...

An accurate quote for sure, but is it an apt comparison? That also is not so certain (again, compared to drugs, antiquities are not "liquid," or anywhere as near as profitable), and, in fact, throwing around that comparison gets in the way of making sound proposals to address the problem, such as that made by Derek Fincham that countries seek to adopt programs like the UK Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Anonymous said...

Extremist elements benefiting from the looting and destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage? Yes, but the occupiers have more to answer for than the occupied. It was they who smashed Iraq's civic institutions, its basic amenities and destroyed the rule of law. Was not the appropriation of Iraq's resources a motivation for the attack? Does cultural appropriation not go hand in hand with imperialist ambition?

Bogdanos' concern for Iraq's heritage is rather overshadowed by his whole hearted support for US military action. As a cheerleader for a crime of aggression he can hardly be surprised by the cultural vandalism that it entailed.



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