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Byline: Barbara Crossette The New York Times

Browsing the antiques markets of London a few years ago, McGuire Gibson, an expert on Mesopotamian art and archeology at the University of Chicago, found some of his worst fears confirmed.

In the stalls of Portobello Road and the shops of Bond Street, dealers offered him antiquities probably smuggled from Iraq, a modern nation in distress that sits astride the remains of several ancient civilizations.

Cylinder seals, which were once used on tablets of wet clay in something like an ancient version of notarization, were for sale by the bagful. There were clay tablets with cuneiform writing from as early as the Babylonian period and other objects of uncertain origin.

``For decades, the Iraqis kept a very tight lid on stuff, and there was very, very little getting out,'' said Gibson, a professor at the university's Oriental Institute and a leading archeologist who conducted digs in Iraq from 1964 until the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

``After the war, the selling started. Now stuff is just pouring out. They are selling everything. If this continues, there won't be an archeological site left that won't be damaged.''

With stringent economic sanctions against Iraq in place since 1990 and little relief in sight, art experts and archeologists say precious artifacts from some of the world's oldest civilizations - Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian among them - are pouring into the international market mainly to raise cash in hard times.

Experts say they cannot estimate the total value of Iraqi antiquities reaching the market illegally, but given that even small individual pieces can be priced at $50,000 in some cases, and that there are so many objects involved, the figure probably runs into the millions of dollars.

Mesopotamian antiquities exported legally from the 19th century until the 1960s have fetched high prices - in one case $12 million paid for an ancient palace relief.

Experts at Sotheby's and Christie's, auction houses that are careful to authenticate objects and know their origins, say they have not encountered pieces from the new wave of illegal exports.

While some of the sellers of Mesopotamian antiquities are middle-class families parting with heirlooms and Iraqi traders unable to sustain themselves because of an embargo imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, looters and grave robbers working with international smugglers are doing most of the damage, some experts say.

There have been reports of hundreds of looters swarming over archeological sites, perhaps with semiofficial complicity, and a truckload of cuneiform tablets intercepted on the way to Saudi Arabia. So successful is the largely illegal trade in Iraqi antiquities that a thriving business in Mesopotamian fakes is also growing.

Diplomats, collectors, dealers and university experts - most of whom do not want to be identified, so their future work in the region will not be disrupted - disagree on some details about the boom. Some believe that individuals, including government employees, are taking the best pieces out overland through Jordan; others think that most of the smuggling is done by professional rings operating through the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq into Iran.

As might be expected, Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's envoy to the United Nations and an architect by training, blames the Kurds, who are in a permanent state of rebellion against central authority. But he also says Iraq is unable to guard all its archeological sites, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and some objects are so close to the surface that they are easily removed.

Hamdoon said many pieces had disappeared from provincial Iraqi museums after the war. American scholars and collectors have varying opinions about the value of missing museum pieces. But several said they believed that the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, which they described as one of the world's finest, had survived with most of its collection intact.

Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research in New York, which with the independent Art Loss Register monitors stolen art and antiquities, said Iraq had been vigilant in watching over its major museums and helpful in compiling lists of missing objects.

But questions remain about how some objects, especially large pieces, get out of the country undetected. In the current issue of Lowenthal's newsletter, IFAR Reports, John M. Russell, an art historian and archeologist at Columbia University, reports that parts of three large reliefs from the throne room of the Sennacherib Palace in Nineveh that he photographed in 1990 are now on the international market.

Iraq has laws against exporting antiquities, and selling illegal imports is a crime in the United States. But this trade is new, and many items are small and easily concealed.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 23, 1996

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