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
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
Bogdanos gives full credit to the personnel of eight law enforcement agencies in six countries trying to contain the illegal traffic in antiquities:
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
Another was the April, 2003, seizure by customs officials in
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
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.