Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Treasure Hunting

During the 2003 fall of Baghdad invaluable artwork dating back to the origins of human civilization were stolen. This was attributed to the lack of security for the Baghdad National Museum, at the time of war. Following this widespread looting, the Interpol formed a team to track down the art and antiquities. The Interpol made this announcement after a panel of antiquities experts said it suspected some of the looting had been "commissioned" by collectors who had anticipated the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.[]
Further U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft also suggested that organized crime was involved. "There is a strong case that the looting … was perpetrated by organized criminal groups — criminals who know what they were looking for," Ashcroft said, praising Interpol's efforts.[]
U.S. Senator John Kerry also criticized President Bush during their first televised debate that the U.S. military guarded the oil ministry building in Iraq, but not the national museum.
Where did the stolen art go?
Again CBS news reports: []
Lynne Chaffinch, manager of the FBI Art Theft Program, says..” the thieves will attempt to sell most of the stolen pieces in wealthy countries such as the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, France and Switzerland. People in the United States already buy about 60 percent of the world's art, both legal and illegal.”
News magazines also covered the role of the American Council for Cultural Policy’s (ACCP) role in the looting. “Before the war began, the ACCP met with Pentagon officials, declaring their great concern for Iraqi antiquities. What that concern means is evident from the remarks of William Pearlstein, the group’s treasurer, who also describes Iraqi laws on antiquities as “retentionist.” The ACCP deny that they want Iraqi laws changed, but the looting of the museum and library will effectively circumvent that problem if U.S. law on stolen art objects and archaeological material can be changed.”[]
In spite of the fact that most of the Iraqi art stolen is going to end up with private collectors in the developed countries, there have not been major questions raised at the U.S. administration by the media (which has already forgotten this story) or from the public. Chicago University experts say between 50,000 and 200,000 items were stolen from Baghdad museums after the city fell to U.S. forces. This should definitely rank with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in 48 B.C.
My contention is that much of the developed world’s officials and public still view artwork and natural resources of the developing world as “treasures”, legitimizing a “treasure hunt” mentality. This desensitizes the citizens of the developed world to violations of sovereignty of the states of the developing world and their ownership rights over artwork and natural resources.
A search in the net for the British Museum and Egypt brings up thousands of web pages marked as treasure. These “treasures” rightfully belong to the Egyptian people and yet even Egyptians have to travel a thousand miles to Britain to view them. Items include the Rosetta Stone and several mummies. One website describes the British Museum thus: “2003 marks the 250th anniversary of the British Museum. Back in 1753 the treasures that had been brought home to England from its many colonies around the world found a home in this palatial building.”(

During the British occupation of India many priceless artwork and jewelry were taken to adorn the British Museum. Among this are the peacock throne, the throne of the Mughal kings, and the Koh-i-Nur one of the largest diamonds in the world. The Koh-i-Nur resides in the Tower of London among the Crown Jewels of the House of Windsor. It was acquired by the British in 1849 after the Second Sikh War. In spite of repeated requests from the free Indian government, after Independence, none of these have been returned to the rightful owners. In fact any attempts to ask for these are routinely met with derision in the British media(
One of the beliefs widely held in the Western world is that the Industrial Revolution was somehow the indigenous byproduct of the ingenuity of the Western thinkers. On the other hand: “At this time, large amounts of silver and gold were being plundered from the Americas. This not only furnished the money that is credited with starting the Industrial Revolution, it seriously devalued Turkish money required to buy the tools of war. Thus the treasures gathered for centuries by the people of the great Aztec, Mayan, and Inca cultures were transported to Europe” (Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers [New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988], p. 16).
The ACCP’s Professor John Merryman of Stanford Law School says in International Law and Politics vol.31:1:”The existence of a market preserves cultural objects that might otherwise be destroyed or neglected by providing them with a market value. In an open, legitimate trade cultural objects can move to the people and institutions that value them most and are therefore most likely to care for them.” What Professor Merryman is implying is that Iraqis are not fit to take care of their art and that art is better transported to the living rooms of the rich in the developed world.
This is the same attitude shown towards natural resources, such as oil in the developing world. A few policy statements made by public officials in the U.S. administrations are chilling.
“We have 50 per cent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 per cent of its population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality ... we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation.”
-- George Kennan, U.S. State Department Policy Planning, Study #23, 1948
These sentiments find echo in the current administration’s war on Iraq. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney’s comment on Iraq, when he was the CEO of Halliburton: “In the 04/01/96 edition of Petroleum finance week, then-CEO Cheney blithely dismissed the ethical concerns of doing business with brutal dictators, saying, "The problem is that the good Lord didn't see fit to always put oil and gas resources where there are democratic governments." []
Seeing the developing world merely as a provider of oil, artwork for the rich and cheap labor leads to public apathy over casualties in the developing world as the developed world pursues these objectives.
“The South is assigned a service role: to provide resources, cheap labor, markets, and opportunities for investment and, lately, export of pollution. For the past half-century, the US has shouldered the responsibility for protecting the interests of the “satisfied nations” whose power places them “above the rest,” the “rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations” to whom “the government of the world must be entrusted,” as Winston Churchill put the matter after World War II.”-- Noam Chomsky, Year 501, (South End Press, 1993), Chapter 2
A substantial push for revamping the public mentality can only be done through education – by showing that being poor does not mean the developing world’s populace is somehow bereft of dignity and the right of ownership.

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