Archaeologists and scholars criticized the US military for not taking the measures to secure the museum, a repository for a myriad of valuable ancient artifacts from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization. In the several months leading up to the war, scholars, art directors, and collector met with the Pentagon to ensure that the US government would protect Iraq's important archaeological heritage, with the National Museum in Baghdad being at the top of the list of concerns. Between April 8, when the museum was vacated and April 12, when some of the staff returned, an estimated 15,000 items and an additional 5,000 cylinder seals were stolen. Moreover, the National Library was plundered of thousands of cuneiform tablets and the building was set on fire with half a million books inside; fortunately, many of the manuscripts and books were preserved. A US task force was able to retrieve about half of the stolen artifacts by organizing and dispatching an inventory of missing objects and by declaring that there would be no punishment for anyone returning an item. In addition to the vulnerability of art and historical institutions during the Iraq war, Iraq's rich archaeological sites and areas of excavated land (Iraq is presumed to possess vast undiscovered treasures) have fallen victim to widespread looting. Hordes of looters disinterred enormous craters around Iraq's archaeological sites, sometimes using bulldozers. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 archaeological sites in Iraq have been despoiled.
But has the Euphronios Krater really come home? This is the challenging question posed by James Cuno’s latest book. The president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cuno takes a provocative approach to the age-old controversy over the ownership and display of cultural artifacts. In his view, the claims of countries like Italy to antiquities taken from their soil are unwarranted. The modern nation-state of Italy, after all, is less than 200 years old. What particular right does Italy have to a vase that predates it by over two millennia? Yes, the Euphronios Krater was probably stolen, but once the theft had occurred, and valuable information about the work’s archaeological context had already been lost, should the vase have been destroyed or hidden in a private collection rather than displayed in a museum—one of the few places where it might introduce citizens to an element of their collective past?
Drawing on careful legal research, the book’s central chapters argue that the laws governing the movement of antiquities today are political constructs heavily influenced by nation-states. Over the past three and a half decades, the conventions of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have increasingly favored the narrow interests of countries like Greece, China, Turkey, and Egypt that lay claim to particular artifacts. They make these claims not out of concern for the welfare of the works themselves, but to assert their authority over, and to profit from, riches originating in their territories. In turn, they incorporate these artifacts into national “histories” that, not coincidentally, exclude ethnic minorities and shore up the power of ruling parties.
In 2004 the US passed the Bill HR1047 for the Emergency Protection for Iraq Cultural Antiquities Act, which allows the President authority to impose emergency import restrictions by Section 204 of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCIPA). In 2003, Britain and Switzerland put into effect statutory prohibitions against illegally exported Iraqi artifacts. In the UK, the Dealing in Cultural Objects Bill was established in 2003 that prohibited the handling of illegal cultural objects.
One of the most infamous cases of esurient art plundering in wartime was the Nazi appropriation of art from both public and private holdings throughout Europe and Russia. The looting began before World War II with illegal seizures as part of a systematic persecution of Jews, which was included as a part of Nazi crimes during the Nuremberg Trials. During World War II, Germany plundered 427 museums in the Soviet Union and ravaged or destroyed 1,670 Russian Orthodox churches, 237 Catholic churches and 532 synagogues.