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Plundered Iraqi treasures head for illegal market

Detail of an Uruk vase (University of Alberta, Canada)

Televised images of ancient artefacts being looted from Iraqi museums have raised fears that the country's national treasures could be sold illegally abroad.

Art dealers have warned that plundered treasures could pass through Switzerland before being sold on international markets.

Swiss television showed Nidal Amin, deputy director of the National Museum in Baghdad, weeping as huge quantities of artefacts representing thousands of years of Iraqi heritage were stolen.

Like many other cultural centres around Iraq, the National Museum fell prey to looters in the chaos that ensued after United States-led troops seized control of Baghdad last week.

Among the more than 170,000 objects in the museum were treasures like an alabaster Uruk vase dating back to 3,500 BC, and the tablets of King Hammurabi dating back to 2,000 BC.

"These are not just objects or items," said Cornelia Isler-Kerényi, an archaeologist and a representative of Unesco Switzerland.

"They are the only testimonial of civilisations that have died out, and if you destroy them it is a scandal, a crime against humanity."

Iraq's museums house millennia-old collections from the Babylonian, Sumerian, Assyrian, and Roman civilisations.

Illicit trade

Some of the stolen items have reportedly already appeared for sale on international markets. Some experts have criticised Switzerland for being one of the main transit countries for such plundered treasures.

"It's a pretty safe bet that material from Iraq is passing through Switzerland," Neil Brodie, coordinator of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre in Britain, told swissinfo in an interview shortly before the outbreak of the war.

He believes that Switzerland is a natural centre for illicit art. "It's centrally placed in Europe and the expertise and financial resources are there."

Further, Switzerland is one of the few countries not to have signed up to the United Nations' Unesco Convention of 1970, which regulates the transfer of cultural objects in 94 countries and encourages international cooperation.

Nevertheless, Peter Blome, director of the Museum of Antiquities in Basel, believes that Switzerland is not an easy transit route for ill-gotten art.

No easy passage

Swiss art dealers, museums and cultural fairs would be foolish to trade stolen artefacts Blome said. "Swiss and European dealers have rules and I think no serious dealer will accept pieces with doubtful origins."

"We would take such objects and immediately deposit them in a safe area so that we could hand them back to Iraq when a new [cultural] organisation is operating," Blome added.

Meanwhile, a Swiss parliamentary commission has recommended that Switzerland put together a list of all cultural objects plundered from Iraq.

It said on Tuesday Switzerland did not want to be perceived as a centre for dealing in stolen art.

Any new Iraqi authority charged with restoring and rebuilding the nation's heritage has its work cut out for it. Smashed pottery, decapitated statues, burned out archives and ransacked museums with empty shelves are for the most part all that remain.

Indeed, there is not much still intact that can be sold abroad, Blome believes.

"All the objects made of gold, silver and other precious metals I'm sure will be destroyed or remelted to be used in other pieces," he said.

Too little, too late

Coalition forces have been criticised for not protecting museums, libraries and other cultural institutions. Now the US has pledged to recover and repair the stolen and damaged treasures.

"The US understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities," said the US secretary of state, Colin Powell.

Some experts believe the losses are immeasurable, and any effort to save Iraq's treasures is too little, too late.

On Thursday, experts on Iraqi heritage will meet in Paris to count the cost of the looting and seek ways of restoring Iraq's cultural heritage.

swissinfo, Samantha Tonkin

Iraqi art

Art dealers are warning that ancient artefacts plundered from Iraqi museums could end up being sold illegally abroad.

Switzerland is seen as an obvious route for stolen art because of its central European location, financial resources and expertise.

Switzerland is also one of the few countries not to have signed up to the United Nations' Unesco Convention of 1970, regulating the transfer of cultural objects.

But Peter Blome, director of the Museum of Antiquities in Basel, says Swiss art dealers would not deal in stolen Iraqi art but make sure that Iraqi artefacts found their way back to the country.

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