On April 10 2003, the first looters broke into the National Museum of Iraq. Staff had vacated two days earlier, ahead of the advance of US forces on Baghdad. The museum was effectively ransacked for the next 36 hours until employees returned.
While the staff – showing enormous bravery and foresight – had removed and safely stored 8,366 artefacts before the looting, some 15,000 objects were taken during that 36 hours. While 7,000 items have been recovered, more than 8,000 remain unaccounted for, including artefacts thousands of years old from some of the earliest sites in the Middle East.
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The looting is regarded as one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times, but much more of Iraq’s rich cultural history has been destroyed, damaged or stolen in the years since. Indeed the illegal trade in looted antiquities is growing. The museum reopened in 2014, somewhat a shadow of its former self.
Some high value items looted from the museum were so recognizable that they could not possibly appear on the open market, suggesting they were taken with buyers already lined up. Global outrage at the looting did lead to immediate action. One of the most successful programs was an amnesty granted by authorities that saw almost 2,000 items returned by January 2004, and a further thousand items seized by Iraqi and US investigators.
The heaviest item stolen, a headless statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash was recovered in New York in 2006 with the help of an art dealer. Interpol and the University of Chicago have fastidiously maintained databases for objects looted from museum.
The loss of these sites and artefacts is disastrous for humanity. The Baghdad looting has shown that in times of conflict, not even a museum can necessarily provide a sanctuary, without meaningful policies of protection. Sadly, it appears we have not learnt the lessons of April 2003.