Recommending the book Thieves of Baghdad

Thieves of Baghdad by Matthew Bogdanos (available by year end, from Bloomsbury) is an illuminating read for anyone interested, from any perspective, in primary sources and first-hand experience in combat in Iraq.


(Two disclosures here: My advance reading copy of Thieves of Baghdad does not include the endnotes, and I went to high school with William Patrick, who collaborated on the book with Bogdanos.)


The author is understandably proud of his Greek-American family heritage. He is also proud of his pugilism, of his love of the classics, and of his career as a New York prosecutor and as a Marine, all of which he links together, so that his writing about trying to recover priceless antiquities in Iraq is thronged by friendly ghosts including Aeschylus, Thucydides, and Agatha Christie Mallowan.


Several important points emerge. First, the mission to recover items looted from the huge Baghdad Museum was ad hoc, drawing largely on the persistence, courage and expertise of a few individuals. Bogdanos largely put together the archaeological and artifacts recovery team, headed it with few personnel but with relative mobility, and operated in direct contact with Iraqis at virtually all levels. Their success was achieved by careful investigation and a nationwide amnesty for returned artifacts.


Second, in spite of early and popular successes, Bogdanos and his team were pulled from the mission before it was complete. The mission was truncated even though, and while, it was also a public relations success.


Third, the author argues concretely that early press reports of the looting of the museum itself were grossly exaggerated. Destruction and theft at the museum were devastating, but the numbers purveyed by the largest media outlets were unfounded.


If this point sounds like an apologetic, it should be placed in perspective by the related fact that the destruction and looting at the chief museum itself were only one part of the wider and more everyday looting at archaeological sites all over Iraq. The looting and commerce based on looting continue, little abated, to this day.


Bogdanos gives full credit to the personnel of eight law enforcement agencies in six countries trying to contain the illegal traffic in antiquities: Interpol, U.S. Customs, Scotland Yard, British, Kuwaiti and Jordanian customs, Italian carabinieri in Iraq, and U.S. Attorney offices in New Jersey and New York. However, he also makes clear that the entities involved lack the resources to stop illegal trafficking. One oddity of this looseness in the war on terror, of course, is that smugglers in illegal antiquities also often smuggle weapons and explosives. When you catch the one, you catch the other.


But commerce is powerful. Bogdanos refers to one foreign official who denies that Iraqi antiquities had ever been found in his country, contrary to reports. His proof was that they had never, in his entire country, ever seized any Iraqi antiquities. He refers to another who responds to a request for help by arguing that that would harm their customs and excise revenues.


As indicators that not all the problems lie abroad, the author also gives two anecdotes of smuggling caught in the act from the U.S. One case was that of part-time academic and journalist Joseph Braude, tried in Brooklyn Federal Court in August 2004. Bogdanos, one of the witnesses against him, raises a question: “So how did a relatively obscure quasi-academic like Braude, a small fish with no money . . . get the highest-paid defense attorney in the country, a lawyer whose clients [including Puff Daddy] usually leave the courthouse each day in a limo?”


Another was the April, 2003, seizure by customs officials in Newark of four FedEx boxes of 669 museum artifacts stolen, including 87 cylinder seals. Bogdanos says “The proper way to deal with such a cache is to use it as bait to catch a thief.” Understandably, the haul was instead impounded, and the warning was out: “The intended recipient, a Madison Avenue art dealer, once notified of the seizure could now say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about . . . It must be some kind of mistake at the other end.’ The opportunity to prove that it wasn’t a mistake . . . had been squandered. The thieves were probably out bulldozing archaeological sites, the European middleman shipper was licking more mailing labels, and the scheduled recipients, who should have been working on their ‘prison pallor,’ were soaking up the sun in the Hamptons or Vail.”


As the author comments, “The first dot you have to connect is the number of well-placed individuals, and the amount of ‘genteel’ money, involved in the antiquities trade. These people live in the Upper East Side and in Georgetown and in Pacific Heights, not in some Mafia enclave in Pawtucket. But even more important, you have to understand that a trial like Braude’s was all about the price.

            In real estate you need comps to get approval for a mortgage, sales of similar houses in your area that establish market value. To establish market value in smuggling, you need a judgment from a court of law. The calculus the bad guys use is actually quite sophisticated. In addition to the actual value of the item itself, be it drugs, weapons or antiquities, there is the risk associated with the smuggling operation from start to finish . . . The bottom line with regard to Iraqi antiquities was that if the first guy who gets caught coming through customs gets a slap on the wrist, the price of smuggled antiquities goes down. If he does prison time, the price goes up.

            Not surprisingly then, I noticed some familiar faces, art collectors and art dealers, in the courtroom the day I testified.”


I must admit that the one form of pure greed I can empathize with is love of art. When I see a bargain myself, I jump at it, although my collecting is both modest and legal. But trafficking in items that belong to the ancient history of both East and West is greed of a decadence beyond what I can empathize with. Bogdanos’ book lays out constructive, measured suggestions for coordinating an international effort to impede trafficking in cultural heritage. Perhaps some of them will be put into effect.

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