The museum sacking that wasn't

Posted: May 27, 2003 12:00 AM

If you only read The New York Times, you might think the only truly important recent event in Iraq was the looting of the Iraqi National Museum. For art lovers, this branded the U.S. occupation with the worst of all possible labels, worse than "imperialist," worse than "illegal" -- "Philistine."

Robert Deutsch, an archeologist at Haifa University and a licensed antiquities dealer, shakes his head at all the coverage of the museum sacking. The Times originally reported that 170,000 pieces had been stolen. "Nonsense," says Deutsch. He points out that there would have to be "miles and miles" of display area for such a massive amount of material to be readily available for the snatching.

Subsequent reporting has cited roughly 30 items stolen from the museum's exhibition area, although hundreds more were taken from well-secured storage areas in an inside job (Saddam Hussein's cousin was the museum's director). But the most valuable pieces appear to have been kept safe, in what is shaping up as the "Great Civilization-Rattling Heist That Wasn't."

"They just had to have something to complain about," Deutsch says of the museum hype from skeptics of the war. "The war was fast. It was clean. They found a small place where they can complain."

Even the actual theft is unlikely to prove particularly damaging. And while robbery is always wrong, the brouhaha should prompt discussion of a point that dealers like Deutsch are willing to make, even if it drives archeologists and academics into a frothing rage: Antiquities sometimes are better off in private hands than in museums.

"I don't see any big or significant damage from this looting," says Deutsch. "It was very small-scale. And the historical value of an antiquity is in its publication. Once it's published, it's part of our knowledge." Thereafter, its value is mostly as an object of art.

Any major, well-known pieces stolen from the Iraqi museum -- perhaps a half-dozen -- will have great difficulty making it out of Iraq. "Everybody knows the important items," says Deutsch. Because of the chill of the Iraq looting, people are afraid even to buy Mesopotamian items that owners secured before 2003.

The more fundamental point about antiquities is that the world is awash in them. Only the truly extraordinary and well-preserved items get displayed in museums.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pieces which will never see the light of day," says Deutsch. "There are always more finds, and the great majority of the new pieces are not good enough to display."

Deutsch recalls that roughly 40,000 ancient coins were discovered in Jerusalem in the 1960s and 1970s. The vast majority will never be displayed, because no one wants to look at the same coin over and over. (Imagine the billing of a museum show based on them: "Coins. Lots of Coins. Lots and Lots of Coins.") The same principle applies to oil lamps, pottery and statute fragments -- and much else.

Therefore, many items sit in museum storage areas to rot -- sometimes literally. The University of Arizona Museum has 20,000 pieces of pottery that have languished in buildings with improper environmental controls. "About a third of our collection has been damaged, and there are collections elsewhere that have been completely destroyed by the same process," a museum official has told the Arizona Daily Star.

"Items that are in private hands are much more secure than what's in the basement of the museum," says Deutsch.

Erdal Dere, an owner of Fortuna Fine Arts in Manhattan, gives an example. Thousands of ushabtis -- ancient ceramic figurines -- are packed on top of each other in the basements of Egyptian museums. Once they are cataloged, why shouldn't they be sold, to be displayed and enjoyed? "What's the point," asks Dere, "in having thousands of these figurines in boxes and storage facilities?"

That is considered heresy by most archeologists, and by the same sophisticates who gave us the premature reports of the death of the Iraqi National Museum.