Hunt Continues for Illegal Antiquities

Article excerpt

Three years after he first stood in a dark, hot vault in Baghdad's National Museum, Col. Matthew Bogdanos's mission is far from complete.

Colonel Bogdanos, a marine reservist, led the investigation into who stole some of the world's most valuable Mesopotamian artifacts in the wake of the Iraqi invasion. He wrote a book about the experience, and he now plans to return to his job in the Manhattan district attorney's office, where he wants to lead the charge against the global trade in illegal antiquities - many of them looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

"The trade in illegal antiquities is a global criminal enterprise," he says during an interview at the American Association of Museums' annual conference in Boston. "In order to combat a global criminal enterprise, you need a global response. You can't do it piecemeal."

A hardened prosecutor who had long ago gotten used to bloody crime scenes, Bogdanos says he found himself overwhelmed by the scale of avarice in the world of illegal antiquities. "I have always felt shrimp-sized in the ocean of history," says Bogdanos, who is also a classics scholar. "I'm beginning to feel even smaller because now this ocean's got waves and currents and sharks."

No one knows how much the global trade in illegal antiquities is worth, Bogdanos says, but estimates venture into billions of dollars.

Out of active duty and returning to prosecuting, he now tours the world and has spoken to museum and university audiences and government officials almost 100 times in 45 cities and nine countries. His goal, he says, is to get people to care enough about the loss of cultural artifacts that they want to do something to stop it.

"We don't need a message that resonates with academics or members of the archaeological community," Bogdanos says. "We need a message that resonates with the average individual, who may or may not have a college education, who may or may not have ever been to a museum."

Perhaps increased public awareness would lead to concrete steps to protect antiquities. Bogdanos wants those steps to include a commission, formed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to continue the Iraq Museum investigation.

Bogdanos also wants a more coordinated effort to track antiquities as they move across borders. Inspectors could take digital pictures of suspicious objects and send them in real-time to Interpol. Not only do authorities have evidence that the illegal- antiquities trade helps fund the insurgency in Iraq, but it is also highly organized, Bogdanos says.

To move "a stolen antiquity from an archaeological site in the middle of the night to a Manhattan townhouse - there is some serious organization here, and it's pretty eye-opening," he says. …