Stolen Iraq Treasures Profiled in Crackdown List

July 6, 2004

The effort to fight the trafficking of looted Iraqi artifacts is stepped up by the circulation of the Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk. The Paris-based International Council of Museums (ICOM) and Interpol, the world's largest international police organization, based in Lyon, France, are behind the measure.

The Red List describes categories of Iraqi objects most heavily traded on the black market.

"The people on the front lines of this problem are customs agents and police officers around the world, but they don't necessarily know what a cuneiform tablet looks like, or a Mesopotamian sculpture," said Valérie Jullien. Jullien is in charge of the project at ICOM, an organization founded in France in 1946 to foster cooperation among museums worldwide.

"Our goal was to produce a document with photographs and short descriptions that would help law-enforcement agencies identify stolen objects," she said.

The Looting of Iraq

ICOM organized a meeting of experts on Iraqi artifacts in May 2003 to specify what should be on the list. The list was then published internationally as a leaflet and on the Web in English, French, and Arabic.

Since the start of the war in Iraq last year, thousands of objects have disappeared from museums and archaeological sites across the country, resurfacing for sale illegally on the international market. The Iraq Museum in Baghdad was the hardest hit—over 15,000 objects were taken, only 4,000 of which have been recovered.

The Iraq Museum is the country's premier national archaeological museum, home to all artifacts excavated within the country.

"Serious and respectable auction houses won't sell something that is clearly a stolen object, but how do you know? Often objects are listed as part of an old, arcane collection in England or some other country, and it's hard to prove or disprove where the object actually came from," said Clemens Reichel. Reichel is an archaeologist with the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago in Illinois and editor of the university's Iraq Museum database.

"The looting of archaeological objects from Iraq is an ongoing problem. Things can be found for sale on the Internet every day, so it's necessary to keep raising awareness about the problem," Jullien said.


At the top of the Red List are any items with cuneiform writing: Similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics, cuneiform was the earliest picture writing developed in the region over 5,000 years ago. It's composed of horizontal, vertical or oblique strokes with triangular ends.

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