A Conversation with Matthew F. Bogdanos - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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A Conversation with Matthew F. Bogdanos October 16, 2003

ARCHAEOLOGY talks to the lead investigator of the Baghdad museum looting

Matthew F. Bogdanos may be unfamiliar to those who have not followed efforts to recover archaeological treasures looted from the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, or those who have not encountered him in a Manhattan courtroom. An assistant district attorney in New York, Bogdanos is homicide senior trial counsel ("a chief homicide guy" in his words). He is also a colonel in the Marine Corps, and was recalled to duty following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Until his tour of duty ends later this month, he is Deputy Director, Joint Inter-Agency Coordination Group and in that capacity heads the investigation of the museum theft. Now 47, Bogdanos received his law degree from Columbia University in 1983 and a master's in classics from the same university the following year. (See our forthcoming January/February issue for more of Col. Bogdanos' conversation with ARCHAEOLOGY's executive editor, Mark Rose, and see www.defenselink.mil for a detailed report on the investigation.)

Courtesy Department of Defense

What happened when you first got to the museum? We get there within about 48 hours from Basra. I assemble a team of 14 individuals from my larger group, 'cause I'm still doing other missions, and decide to assign myself the head of the investigation when we get up to Baghdad. The first thing you want to do is establish a crime scene, which means freeze everything in place and conduct a physical examination, an inspection of the entire premises. I did that with [museum official] Donny George. It took us more than ten hours that first day of walking, both around outside and then inside, documenting everything we saw.

What's still missing? You have the public gallery, with what people call the display quality items. Originally 40 items were taken from there, and we've recovered 11, so there are 29 missing. Turning then to the storage rooms, there were about 3,150 pieces taken from those, and that's almost certainly by random, indiscriminant looters. Of those, we've recovered about 2,700. So there's about 400 of those pieces, excavated pieces, missing from the storage rooms. The final group is from the basement. The basement is what we have been calling the inside job. And I will say it forever, like a mantra: it is inconceivable to me that the basement was breached and the items stolen without an intimate insider's knowledge of the museum. From there about 10,000 pieces were taken. We've only recovered 650, approximately. Right now, the total number missing is 10,100, total.

Where is material being intercepted? Are there different levels of cooperation from neighboring countries? You've got two separate places that the antiquities are being intercepted and confiscated. The items that are being recovered locally, and when I say locally I include all of Iraq, are items that were taken by the indiscriminant, random looters, those are the items that are being recovered pursuant to seizures, and raids, and tips, and amnesty. We've recovered almost 3,000 items in that fashion. Turning internationally, however, it's border crossings. There's no cooperation from Iran; I'll start with the worst. Superb cooperation from Jordan. And, somewhere in the middle, closer to the bottom is Syria. Italy has been terrific, the U.K. has been terrific.

Who has brought stolen material back to the museum, and why do they bring it back? You have the entire range of people. On one end of the spectrum, you have the people who truly went into the museum and took something for safekeeping and then returned it as soon as they determined it was safe to do so. And, by the way, those people always insisted on returning it to U.S. forces and not to Iraqis, for fear of returning it to the Ba'ath Party. You also had the people who, carried away by the moment, stole the items and then their conscience got the better of them. They returned the items after they realized how wrong it was that they took them. Then you had a third group, the people afraid of getting caught who saw that we were conducting raids and they saw that informants were giving us information on a daily basis and were afraid of getting caught and figured, let me turn this stuff in before I get caught. And then a fourth group: people who tried one way or another to get the items out of the country, were unsuccessful, and just decided to turn the item in. The alabaster "Lady of Warka" head is a perfect example of that, although it was not brought in through the amnesty program but rather through an informant. It had changed hands, we were told, five times. We were also told it would have been out of the country months and months earlier but for the publicity the investigation had received and the fear that it would have been intercepted in transit. So that's why they buried it in the field on that farm just north of Baghdad.

What about informants? The informants come, like U.S. informants, in every shape and size. Some have a score to settle with the guy across the street, with a competing marketplace vendor. Some are genuinely and sincerely interested in returning the items. Some inform on their loved ones, for fear of the loved ones getting caught. You know, "If I tell you where this is, do you promise you'll get the stuff but no one will be arrested and no one will get in trouble?" "Yes, we do." We always did by the way. If I was given a choice between getting the information and not, and in order to get the information I had to promise not to arrest the person, provided there were no other items--like, provided we didn't find two boxes of RPGs--I would always make the promise. Well that's the same kind of informants you have in New York City. Exactly the same. You have rival drug dealers, just like you have rival marketplace vendors; you have people who inform on their family members because they want their family members to get out of the business because they think it's too unsafe; and you have the sincere people who want their neighborhood cleaned up from drugs, and you have the sincere people in Baghdad, too. That was identical.

Did scammers bring in objects hoping to get a reward for them? This is why a "buy back" is always a last resort in law enforcement. It has time and time and time again been proven to be ineffective except as a last resort. If you pay people, you're going to promote the black market, which is what we saw. People were bringing things in that they had looted from the sites and were asking for money. "Thank you very much, we appreciate this, here's the [only] money you are going to get: you're not going to be arrested. Okay, this was stolen yesterday. You're not going to be arrested if you give this to me and you walk away right now. Okay, bye." That happened often. We also had copies. Damascus is quite well known for making copies, so we were getting a lot of Damsacene copies which, again, we would take to get them off the market, say: "Thank you very much, now go away." Mostly cuneiform tablets. Donny would look at them, and before he came within two feet of the tablet he would say, "Damascus." In fact he could tell me the street corner that they were made on. From that particular forger.

There was speculation that Saddam's relatives may have taken some museum objects over the years--have you found any evidence of that? We have certainly been told repeatedly by informants that Saddam, the regime, and family members have systematically stolen items over the course of the last decade. However, the investigation had to have a starting point, so we started with April 8. We have not conducted a thorough investigation yet of anything that happened prior to April 8 simply--and I said yet--because you've got to do one thing at a time, and our primary goal was recovery of as many items as possible. In order to do that we had to have a baseline. We took April 8 as the baseline.

Are you involved in attempts to monitor and control looting of sites outside Baghdad? No, other than to identify and prioritize the sites. I was responsible--with the invaluable assistance of Henry Wright [of the University of Michigan], McGuire Gibson [of the University of Chicago], as well as Bonnie Magness-Gardiner from the State Department--for compiling a list, prioritizing that list, determining the level of security required at each site--for example, this site requires six guards, this site requires 18--and then providing that prioritized list to Lt. General Sanchez, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, requesting them to protect the sites with the manpower they have available.

To the extent that they are able to? Yes, and that's why it has to be prioritized. The first part of the strategy was to prioritize the list and protect them to extent possible with U.S. forces. The second component to that strategy is for Iraqi to take over security of the sites.

Are they deployed now? While guards are in fact deployed to the sites, I must point out that they are inadequately trained and equipped. Indeed, although approximately 1,675 guards have been rehired, they are assigned to protect over 3,000 sites. Moreover, they are usually alone at the sites they guard and have very little formal security training, communication assets, or vehicles. Thus disposed and with no support, they are no match for determined and armed looters. We need private organizations and the international community to assist in training and equipping a professional security force devoted exclusively to protecting the sites.

What should the dealer, collector, and museum community be doing to help? International law enforcement agencies can only do so much. One of the things international law-enforcement must do is it must educate and be educated in antiquities, much like when a new drug comes on the market. We have to educate ourselves: what does the drug look like, what is its packaging, what does it smell like, what's the normal quantity. We have to do the same thing with antiquities in educating international law-enforcement officials throughout the world. Well, that only goes so far. The second, and more crucial, component to that strategy requires the assistance of the art community in several ways. The first way is the art community needs to stop participating in the smuggling. In order for an item of value an antiquity of value to be sold for value it has to be authenticated. Well, it's clearly only going to be authenticated by an acknowledged expert in the field. That expert is going to be--and we have found time and time again--a name that is known either through published articles, through research, through employment at a museum or at a well known art dealer. Otherwise that person doesn't have the credentials necessary to authenticate the piece. What we are finding is well known and otherwise respected members of the art community are in fact authenticating stolen pieces for a fee. The second point of this is many of these items are either destined for less scrupulous museums or art dealers or are placed with art dealers in transit, as the middle location. We need the art community first to stop that. But, you know, recognizing human nature being what it is, that may not happen. Okay. We need the art community to be deputized and keep their eyes and ears open and look, look for shipments that don't seem right or feel right. Look for a shipment from Fed Ex that says eighteenth-century English artifacts and you open it up and its got cylinder seals. That's wrong--it feels wrong, it looks wrong. Well, I need that clerk, that retailer, that assistant to report that to local law-enforcement officials. It will ultimately get to the people that need the information, and then we can act on it.

What's the good news here, if any? Is international cooperation on this up to what it should be? The good news is that it wasn't 170,000 items that were stolen. The good news is the Iraqi people were remarkably supportive, responsive, cooperative. I've got to tell you, I really just can't speak highly enough of the reception I received for the five months from the Iraqi people. However, I cannot say the same about the international law-enforcement community. While there have been individual moments and individual agents who have been superb, we are still not at the point where we need to be, which is a seamless integration of law-enforcement efforts and completely seamless, transparent information sharing. If there is a shipment that is recovered in the Port of Newark, those Customs inspectors should immediately notify Customs agents who should immediately notify the FBI, Scotland Yard, Jordan, Baghdad, and members of my team who are still conducting the investigation, so that we all have the same information so that we can conduct simultaneous investigations. If you've got a point of destination and a point of origin and those are two different countries, those two countries need to work seamlessly together and simultaneously, just like you would in a drug operation. The key to intercepting a shipment is intercepting it and then allowing it to be completed, what we call a controlled delivery. Because then you've got the guy getting the goods as well as the sender. But you've go to do that simultaneously and you've got to do it in two different countries and that will almost certainly be at least three or four separate agencies that are involved and unless every single one of them is operating with complete cooperation and complete integration, it's not going to work.

Will you continue to be involved after your tour of duty ends? What will happen with the investigation? I will, no matter what happens, I will continue to be involved in the investigation on a personal level. There is a very competent, very good officer who will replace me as Deputy Director of the JIACG in that capacity, but there is no one who has been assigned to replace me as the head of the investigation, so one of my goals is to get either another governmental, U.S. governmental agency, or another country to take over control of the investigation--remembering that the investigation has to be international to succeed as it has been. That individual needs to have contacts with the Carabinieri, with Scotland Yard, with Interpol, and with the U.S. in order to succeed. And, in fact, there is a conference at Interpol on the 12th and 13th of November--even though I will by then have been released from active duty, I am going back on duty to attend that conference--and I will deliver a presentation. The key point of it is going to be the future strategy, because you have to have a comprehensive strategy including a single, international point of contact, whoever that person is. I'm going to ask Interpol to assist in determining how best to do that.

Finally, and on a completely different topic, who is your favorite ancient author? Isn't everyone's favorite author Homer. If not, why not? You know, T.S. Eliot said Shakespeare and Dante share the world between them, there is no third. He neglected to say the world they share is Homer's world.

* For more of this interview, see "Conversations: Building Trust in Iraq."
* See the current issue of IFAR Journal for articles on art loss in Iraq.
* Our complete coverage of the cultural heritage crisis in Iraq is available at archaeology.org/online/features/iraq

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America