Matthew Bogdanos, J.D., the swashbuckling Marine Corps colonel charged with recovering priceless antiquities looted from Iraq’s National Museum after the fall of Saddam Hussein, said that only 16 of the 40 most historically significant works of art from the famed institution have been found.
Speaking at the inaugural Fordham International Law JournalSymposium at Fordham Law School on Feb. 9, Bogdanos recounted his experiences in the aftermath of the sacking of the museum and described some of the stolen antiquities that date to the earliest known civilizations, such as the Mask of Warka, believed to be the world’s oldest known naturalistic sculpture of a human face.
And while thousands of pieces have been recovered, including the Mask of Warka, Bogdanos said that only a handful of countries to date have been involved in confiscating stolen Iraqi antiquities on the black market. That situation, he said, has to change in order to recover what is Iraq’s and the world’s cultural heritage.
“These items from the land between the two rivers are not just pieces of cracked limestone and alabaster with funny writing, but they are a living, breathing testament to our shared cultural heritage, a reminder of our common beginnings,” said Bogdanos, author ofThieves of Baghdad: One Marine’s Passion to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures (Bloomsbury USA, 2005) and former Manhattan assistant district attorney. “[The antiquities are] a reminder of our common aspiration to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves. …It’s helpful to remember that Ur is the birthplace of Abraham, patriarch of all three major religions in whose name so much blood is shed today. We have far more in common than the current political situation would lead you to believe.”
Because of the archaeological riches of Mesopotamia, the museum’s collections were considered among the most important in the world. However, Bogdanos, who spent six months living in the museum in the immediate aftermath of the looting, said that the average Iraqi did not feel an affinity toward the institution. In fact, Hussein had shuttered the museum for 20 of the previous 24 years.
“There was … no sense of pride of ownership [among Iraqis]in the collection at the museum because they didn’t view it as theirs,” he said. “Many Iraqis I spoke to called it Saddam’s gift shop—those are their words, not mine—and sadly, they reacted accordingly.”
Bogdanos said that he chose to feature the image of the Lioness Attacking a Nubian, a remarkable eighth-century B.C. ivory plaque inlaid with lapis and carnelian and overlaid with gold, on the cover of the hardcover edition of his book. He did so, he said, not only for its stunning beauty, but also as a reminder.
“The reason I feature it so prominently,” he said, “is because it is still missing. It is there as a painful reminder to me and now I hope to you that until this piece and every piece is recovered, I consider my mission in Iraq to have been a failure. … We are simply not done. I want this piece back and I want every single piece back where it belongs.”