Loony conspiracy theories of looting

Posted: Apr 24, 2003 12:00 AM

If Iraq's National Museum had not been looted, the conspiracy theorists - the antiwar, anti-Bush commentators and protestors - would have had to invent the story. Instead, they merely invented the story of how it happened.

Here are some of the interpretations racing across the Internet from loony to loony. George W. Bush is a cultural dunce, who wouldn't know a 5,000 year-old Warka Vase from a Mexican flower pot from Wal-Mart. He didn't care about the artifacts. (It's not like they're Rembrandts or Leonardos or even Elvises on velvet, he said to himself.) Besides, his cronies who are rich collectors, now get a chance to buy the real stuff on the open black market: They can bid on that cuneiform accounting table (1980 B.C.) when it turns up at a Christie's auction. The Web site of the World Socialists describes "the politics of plunder" as a preface to stealing the oil wells.

Such notions coincide with the BBC's report from Baghdad claiming that Iraqis now live "in more fear than they have ever known."

Sure they do. When Saddam's torturers pulled out teeth and tongues with pliers, raped, beat and murdered young women in front of their fathers and gassed innocent men, women and children, the Iraqis were all happy campers. But the brutish Americans, who made sure not to drop their bombs on museums and put themselves at risk of life and limb to spare civilians, are the scary ones.

Wasn't it a shame they had to bomb that nice General Ali Hassan al-Majid, chief of the state security service, who murdered Iraqis without trial just for his own amusement? He was also known as "Chemical Al" because he kept a pantry full of mustard gas and sarin nerve gas left over from his party with the Kurds.

The Bush-haters can't find much flawed strategy in this war. The death of every man, woman and child is a personal tragedy, but casualties were slight compared to other wars, and this one lasted only 21 days. Museum looting was all the critics had left. If the Americans were careless about guarding the museum and library, Washington should say so, but lots of questions need answers before we flay ourselves for what happened to missing artifacts.

For openers, we shouldn't rule out the possibility that Saddam Hussein had already looted the museum of some of its finest pieces. He wouldn't be the first dictator to realize that there's money in art and antiquities. Hitler sent out the director of the Dresden Museum to find the best paintings in occupied Europe to add to the collection of the Fuhrer, who as we know, was a failed artist before he became a failed fuhrer.

Nor would it surprise any but the terminally credulous if Saddam had melted down the gold and bronze objects for himself. (There are almost no medieval cathedral bells left in Europe because the bronze was melted down for World War II armaments.) No doubt occasional freelance vandals invaded the National Museum in Baghdad. Saddam, who liked to identify himself with the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, did not exactly inspire a reverence for ancient art, antiquity and history.

Nevertheless, it's beginning to look like the real art thieves were operating on the inside. For one thing, the thieves had keys to the vaults. They made discriminating choices, leaving behind the less valuable pieces and the fakes, which strongly suggests that the thieves were not run-of-the-street hooligans. The hooligans were after TV sets, refrigerators and air-conditioners.

Jerome Eisenberg of the Royal Athena Gallery in New York notes that art smugglers have had a long-running business in Baghdad. "Possibly this was an inside job and there was collusion," he says. "These thieves can wait, or take the goods out by diplomatic or military means, or by boat. They think of everything."

Usually curators and professionals who work in museums do their best to save the art they cherish. That doesn't seem to have happened in Iraq. The heroic exploits of a genuine art historian who risked her life for art's sake were commemorated in the movie 'The Train," now available on DVD.

It was based on the life of Rose Valland, a curator at the Louvre Museum when the Nazis invaded Paris in World War II. During the occupation, she had the job of overseeing the maintenance staff at the small French impressionist museum called Jeu de Paum, which the Nazis used for storing their confiscated art. Hitler's henchmen kept photographic records of everything they stole and Miss Valland took the negatives home at night and copied them.

In the last days of the war, she saw the Nazis load their stolen paintings on a train scheduled for Germany. Alarmed that they would leave the country just as the war was ending, she persuaded the French Resistance to keep the train circling in the station until the Americans arrived to liberate Paris and the paintings. Alas, there was no Rose Valland in Baghdad.