CBSN

Stolen Iraqi Art Hits World Market

Civilians inspect Torah scrolls stored in the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday April 12, 2003. Looters opened the museum vault and went on a rampage breaking ancient artifacts stored there by museum authorities before the war started.
AP
Some of the ancient artifacts stolen from Iraqi museums are already appearing on the international art market and at least one suspected piece was seized at an American airport, FBI officials say.

Lynne Chaffinch, manager of the FBI Art Theft Program, said art collectors and dealers in the United States have reported contacts from overseas suggesting they have access to some of the thousands of stolen items. Internet searches have also turned up some items of interest, she said.

"We are seeing things appear," Chaffinch told reporters Monday.

Chaffinch said Customs agents at an unspecified U.S. airport seized at least one item believed stolen from a Baghdad museum.

Customs officials declined comment, citing an ongoing investigation, but confirmed that Customs agents are on the lookout for Assyrian, Sumerian, Mesopotamian and other treasures.

The FBI is working with U.S. and international law enforcement agencies, as well as art collectors, auctioneers and experts

Chaffinch said she expects 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.

"We've had some interesting motives, but mostly it's money," she said of the reasons behind art theft.

Thieves usually attempt to sell stolen art and artifacts on the legal market. The FBI frequently hears about a suspect piece from a dealer or expert, then dispatches an undercover agent to contact the seller. Some of these agents have art history training so they can move undetected in a highly specialized world.

The FBI soon will send a team of agents, probably along with Chaffinch, to Baghdad to collect documentation about the stolen pieces. The information will then will be posted for police on the FBI's National Stolen Art File, which along with private and international databases lists descriptions of some 100,000 pieces of stolen art.

The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute has also begun posting on its Internet site descriptions of some important artifacts believed stolen.

These include a gypsum statue of a worshipper hailing from 2,500 B.C. and a gold helmet of King Meskalamdug, from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, dated to around 2,400 B.C.

Experts at the university say between 50,000 and 200,000 items were stolen from Baghdad museums after the city fell to U.S. forces.

Museum officials in Baghdad speculate that the looters did not take items at random, but appeared in some cases to know exactly what they were seeking.

A U.S. government task force that includes the FBI and Justice Department, State Department, Customs, CIA and Interpol is figuring out how to tackle the Iraqi looting case. Some thought is being given to using an amnesty or reward program to get thieves to return items, though officials stressed no final decisions have been made.

Interpol plans a conference May 5-6 in Lyons, France, to organize and coordinate international efforts to both recover the stolen pieces and arrest the perpetrators. Some Interpol investigators are already in Kuwait, awaiting U.S. military permission to travel to Baghdad.