August 12, 2003


Tim, try to keep up, scolds Ben Butler, my confused nemesis. He thinks Im wrong to claim that only 33 items were looted from the Baghdad Museum, and cites this report as evidence:

Museum officials and American investigators are finding that the number of missing artifacts is vastly lower than first reported. Instead of 170,000 artifacts missing, museum officials say privately, the number will probably be 3,000 to 5,000.

Problem is, that estimate was made in May. The information about 33 missing items was published in June, when a great deal more was known about the looting, or lack thereof.

June comes after May. Tomorrow's lesson for Special Ben: summer is the hot season.

Posted by Tim Blair at August 12, 2003 03:52 PM

Followed by "Food goes in there" and "Mr Thunder means come inside!"

Posted by: Amos at August 12, 2003 at 04:13 PM

By September they'll be having an overstocked sale.

Posted by: ilibcc at August 12, 2003 at 04:26 PM


Actually it seems that you and your "nemesis" are both right (sort of). The WAPO article on which the article you linked was based says:

On Saturday, a team of U.S. investigators from the Customs Service and State Department released a summary of a preliminary report that concluded that 3,000 pieces were missing. And more importantly, of the 8,000 or so exhibit-quality, world-class pieces of jewelry, statues and cuneiform clay tablets, only 47 were unaccounted for.

Today, Iraqi officials at the museum confirmed the U.S. numbers, with a slight adjustment.

"There are only 33 pieces from the main collections that are unaccounted for," George said. "Not 47. Some more pieces have been returned." Museum staff members had taken some of the more valuable items home and are now returning them.

So it depends what you're talking about. If you're talking about "exhibition quality" stuff, there's only 33 missing. But there's 33,000 missing in total. That's still quite a bit of looting and pillaging, although who kows how many of them have now been returned too? And if they're items that aren't even of exhibition quality, it's a bit hard to justify all the technicolour hyperbole about Iraq's priceless antiquities being pillaged while the evil neocons stood by and did nothing.

Posted by: Ken Parish at August 12, 2003 at 04:56 PM

Oops, that should have read 3,000 not 33,000.

Posted by: Ken Parish at August 12, 2003 at 04:57 PM

And we should make a distinction between "looted" and "missing" ...

Posted by: tim at August 12, 2003 at 05:01 PM

Incidentally, anyone who wants to discuss this with Ben can reach him here:

Posted by: tim at August 12, 2003 at 05:03 PM

Every large museum, especially in the Middle East, has a basement stuffed with thousands of uncatalogued items, mostly of little value, such as hoards of coins, mass-produced clay statuettes, and bits of pottery, often deteriorating from lack of conservation. The loss of this stuff may be a good thing: the items will end up in private collections where they will be better cared for, and those that are worth something will eventually will find their way back into public collections again. Yours, Doyne Dawson (former museum administrator)

Posted by: doyne dawson at August 12, 2003 at 05:17 PM


I suppose you're right about making a distinction between "looted" and "missing". It was certainly an important distinction back in June, when lots of stuff was still being brought back from informal safekeeping. It might be rather less important now, to the extent that stuff is still "missing" a couple of months later. It's reasonable to suspect that anything not returned by now was probably nicked. It would be interesting to know just how many items in total are still "missing", because that's what we really need to know to put the story in a reliable perspective.

The fact that none of the journos over there has covered the story recently might suggest the figure isn't low enough to allow the Right to crow about it, or high enough to allow the Left to go back into Bush-bashing mode. Then again it might just suggest that it's yesterday's news that no-one gives a shit about any more (except bloggers trying to one-up each other).

Posted by: Ken Parish at August 12, 2003 at 05:22 PM

Whatever the figure, it's nothing compared to what's gone missing from the Melbourne Museum to be replaced with this rubbish.

At least Iraq had war for an excuse.

Posted by: ilibcc at August 12, 2003 at 05:23 PM

Can we give visas and tickets to Iraqi looters so they can improve the catelogue of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra?

Posted by: Habib Bickford at August 12, 2003 at 05:34 PM

Hate to undermine you, Tim, but latest I've heard is that a collection of 4,795 cylinder seals is missing. They've also got a "most wanted list" of 30 items.

But don't start smiling yet, Ben, you're still an idiot. First of all, it's believed the looting was an inside job that took place before US troops arrived. (This is not uncommon in other countries. France has seen a 40% increase in museum thefts. Worldwide you can find random looting. In some backward countries they even desecrate historic burial grounds.)

Not to mention the fact that US troops did go to the museum and found a "major military defensive position". This was mention in the very article you linked to. Did you even read the article? What the hell were you thinking?

So the looting took place before US troops arrived, and mostly minor items were stolen. You could argue that if the war never took place, those items wouldn't be lost. However, the war prevented Saddam from acting on his plan to flood Ashur, "an act archaeologists liken(ed) to flooding the Vatican". The war saved more history than was lost.

Posted by: scott h. at August 12, 2003 at 05:56 PM

That's August 11.

Looks like he's your bitch again.

Posted by: The at August 12, 2003 at 07:09 PM

And did you read this passage in the article about Ashur?

Overall, the situation for archaeology is not much better elsewhere in Iraq since the end of the Gulf War. Thousands of looted objects, including Assyrian reliefs purloined from museums and storehouses at archaeological sites, have appeared for sale at auction and on the Web.
The article was dated February 3rd. The "Gulf War" they were referring to is the first one. This looting is nothing new. People doing backflips over the looting of the museum act as if Iraq's artifacts were 100% protected by the Hussein regime until the bad, bad Americans invaded.

Incidentally, that's a lot of cylinder seals. Sounds like they are the equivalent of Indian arrowheads in America.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at August 12, 2003 at 09:04 PM

and those 'indians arrowheads', as you so disdainfully refer to those exquisite flaked masterpieces worked with painstaking precision yet reverence by native american craftspersons/artisans, andrea, have been looted from nearly every corn field in the country! my god, the horror!

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at August 12, 2003 at 10:08 PM

No kidding, Mr. Bingley. When I was about ten I stubbed the livin' #$*%@ out of my toe on a old stone axehead in my Cousin Tom's cornfield. Stupid stone axehead!!

Posted by: Twn at August 13, 2003 at 12:44 AM


"And what's this about Joseph Braude, the 28-year-old analyst/consultant from Pyramid Research, who has been on any TV show that will give him air time to talk about his book, "The New Iraq"? Braude was arrested over the weekend for allegedly smuggling stolen 4,000 year-old Mesopotamian artifacts out of Baghdad. He allegedly had three cylindrical stone seals made from alabaster and marble, marked with the letters "IM": and serial numbers on the bottom--which had been missing from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. Not so coincidentally, all references and links to Braude on Pyramid's Website have also mysteriously disappeared."

Fortune - "Streetlife"

Posted by: Theodopoulos Pherecydes at August 13, 2003 at 01:07 AM

I personally watched my grandfather loot a stone spearhead from his potato patch. He gave it to me on the spot. Come and get me, coppers!

Not so coincidentally, all references and links to Braude on Pyramid's Website have also mysteriously disappeared.

They were looted! By the evil Americans! Our priceless link heritage, stolen! Oh, the humanity!

Posted by: Angie Schultz at August 13, 2003 at 01:31 AM

"Then again it might just suggest that it's yesterday's news that no-one gives a shit about any more..."

Assuming that we gave a shit in the first place.

Posted by: jimg at August 13, 2003 at 02:53 AM