Published  02/05/2003


Everything moves so fast in Iraq. It's no longer a question of 'shock and awe', more one of the disappearing museum inventory. In the cradle of world civilisation, the great collection of antiquities has seen looting and pillaging on a scale never hitherto foreseen. It is American curators who have taken the lead and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute has provided a list of some 2,880 missing items. Some 170,000 items are listed as missing or no longer in existence. The eBay site and others on the internet can offer Iraqi artefacts immediately. This is not the normal process of looting; objects held high, quickly deposited in battered vehicles, and driven away. The smart-suited mobile phone groups might just as well have been at a Christie's preview. But outside the National Museum of Iraq earlier this month, the soldiery of the coalition were mysteriously otherwise occupied. Neat convoys of white vans drove the objects quietly away, without any hint of urgency. They might have been officials; certainly they were professionals. The lines are buzzing in Switzerland, Tokyo, and even the Russian Federation. But this process actually got under way long before — after the first Gulf war.

Meanwhile, very large items have left north-eastern Iraq, one weighing over one tonne, some six feet square, and have appeared on the British market. Nebuchadnezzar's palace has been broken into and ancient royal relics spirited away. Some 5,000 items from the lost arks of Iraq have by now been speeding through the widening channels of the international art market. On the positive side, numbers of items have mysteriously found their way back to the Museum gates. Could this be the positive side of Islamic fundamentalism? This time, coalition forces were on hand, perhaps guarding the museum from such returning inventory? In the neighbouring streets, sporadic gunfire indicated that rival gangs of looters were still engaged in market discussions. But the real professionals had long since vanished.

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