Friday, April 18, 2003

Baghdad Art Heist

It now appears that some of the looting of Iraq's National Museum was not the spontaneous action of a rioting crowd, but rather a carefully planned art theft, timed to take advantage of the chaos in Baghdad.
"It looks as if part of the theft was a very, very deliberate, planned action," said McGuire Gibson, president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad, at a meeting in Paris Thursday.
"They were able to obtain keys from somewhere for the vaults and were able to take out the very important, the very best material," Gibson said. "I have a suspicion it was organized outside the country. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was." (link)

Is this the biggest art heist in history? For an art thief, this would be the opportunity of a lifetime: what could create a better diversion for a huge robbery than the chaos of war? Perhaps we'll eventually see some of the "destroyed" artifacts resurface through the black market.

How could this work? Suppose you are a museum employee. Maybe you are corrupt and rotten to the core, or maybe you are just underpaid and bored. One day war begins. Bombs start falling. You start to feel like things have gone crazy. As the streets of Baghdad descend into chaos, suddenly you have an opportunity to make a huge amount of money for very little effort. Sure, it is technically a crime, but you are unlikely to get caught when the authorities -- those that haven't already gone into hiding -- have much bigger things to worry about than a museum.

If you start acting erratically, it must just be the stress of the war, right? If you start moving artifacts around that you are not supposed to be moving, it must just be to "protect them" and move them to "safer storage." If someone asks too many questions and you shoot them, how will anyone ever sort that out from all the other shootings, intentional and otherwise, that have happened this week? You have a perfect cover for doing just about anything.

After you and your associates have made off with the artifacts, any investigation will be unable to get started right away because of the war. Once it does begin, the crime scene will be a mess. Mobs of people will have walked through and carried off the things you did not have time to steal, further confusing the issue. You will probably get away with it.

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