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Culture

Stolen Iraqi Art on Its Way to Black Market

Iraq is in chaos and the country's cultural treasures are already making their way into the lucrative black market in Europe. Investigators say it could be years, if not decades, before the public sees them again.

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The black market for antiquities have been hot since the first Gulf War

Amid the daily reports of death and destruction in Iraq, it was the accounts of the mass pillaging between April 10-12 that most shocked the art world.

Curators at the National Museum in Baghdad reported two straight days of devastating looting that took a serious toll on the museum's historical and comprehensive collection of Mesopotamian art. Cuneiform tablets dating to 4 B.C., etched ivory tablets and a 5,000-year-old gold harp are among the items already missing.

The news has wreaked havoc in the worldwide antiquities market, which has experienced a steady growth in illegal trade since the first Gulf War.

Experts say it's too early to tell how much stolen property will make it into the lucrative black market in Europe and the United States. But with Iraqi curators reporting more than 50,000 items already missing, the figures are already higher than they were following the 1991 Gulf War.

"We clearly expect a larger amount, but it's so far very difficult to define this amount," said Karl-Heinz Kind, the antiquities expert at the international police organization Interpol. No way to find out what's missing

The fate of Iraq's cultural treasures has been the subject of numerous conferences in Europe in the past two months. The American Association for Research in Baghdad, the British School of Archaeology and UNESCO's Institute for Cultural Studies of Ancient Iraq have already begun compiling a list of objects missing since the U.S.-led military invasion began.

Earlier this month, Interpol gathered together art specialists from law enforcement, universities and museums for a one-day meeting in Lyon, France, and pledged to set up an accessible database as soon as possible. But without comprehensive inventory lists, the job is proving to be a mammoth undertaking.

"Normally you have the victim who declares to police what has been stolen," Kind said in an interview with DW-WORLD. "In this case, it's much more difficult."

Some heists well-planned

Photos of 20 objects missing, from the 45,000 year-old skeletal head of a Neanderthal man to a polychrome painted jar from 3 B.C., appear on the web site of the trade publication Art Newspaper. Interpol has posted more than 30 photos on its web site.

"As far as we know there have been two types of thefts," said Kind. "One type can be classified as thefts by professional thieves which were well-prepared beforehand. The other are just occasional thefts."

Tracking the objects is nearly impossible in the first few months, say art theft investigators. Unlike a piece of fine art, which is registered and listed in a catalog of an artist's works, most antiquities don't have any sort of signature and are often little more than stone fragments, said Kind.

Backroom deals never see the light of day

Most will make their way to Europe through the Jordanian or Syrian borders, which art experts have recently asked coalition forces to seal. From there, the items will make their way to tax havens in Switzerland where imports are not registered, said investigator Dick Ellis, and land in the hands of a few "hard-core dealers."

"There's a lot of secrecy in the whole deal," Ellis, a former Scotland Yard investigator who heads the art theft register Trace, told DW-WORLD. "The dealers will most likely show images of their stock to a few, pre-selected clients."

The general public as well as art theft tracing agencies like the Art Loss Register will never get wind of it, according to Ellis. Wary of the public attention currently paid to the story, most smugglers and private dealers are likely to wait out the scrutiny. "I don't think there will be a flood at all," Ellis said. "It will be sat on and it will be leaked onto the marketplace very slowly. And I think what law enforcement has to be aware of is that they're in this for the long haul."

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