Alarm bells over future of Iraqi treasures

April 11, 2003

Academics fear that Iraq's cultural heritage is in danger as an influential group of American antiquities collectors manoeuvre for influence with the planned postwar military regime.

International archaeologists and historians have criticised the activities of the American Council for Cultural Policy, which has held meetings with the Pentagon and the US Defense Department about the fate of Iraqi antiquities during and after the war.

UK and US scholars said the ACCP's remit to protect the interests of US collectors and dealers was "diametrically opposed to scholarly research".

They said that any form of collecting created a lucrative market that encouraged looting and illegal trade in antiquities, destroying the archeological and scientific value of artefacts.

"There is bound to be looting of archaeological sites and museums in the period after war," said Lord Renfrew, professor of archaeology at Cambridge University. "We must guard against the selling-off of Iraqi heritage."

The ACCP, which has offered financial and technical support to the planned post-Saddam regime in Iraq, denied that it had any interest in Iraq other than to protect its rich heritage.

Its critics claimed that the group was seeking to have US laws relaxed to make it easier for dealers to trade in foreign artefacts illegally removed from countries such as Iraq.

The ACCP said it had no policy on US law, but some of its members - including its president, New York lawyer Ashton Hawkins - have criticised US law that recently led to the conviction of a leading dealer for handling stolen property.

Critics also pointed out that the group's treasurer, lawyer William Pearlstein, has criticised Iraqi laws that forbid the export of antiquities and has reportedly said he would like the postwar regime to allow some exports.

Law professor Patty Gerstenblith, a member of the Archeological Institute of America, claimed that the ACCP's goal was to "weaken the laws of the US so that illegally exported and looted objects can be brought into the US and so that dealers and others cannot be prosecuted for handling certain types of stolen archaeological objects". She said that any move to relax laws in Iraq could lead to the legalised plundering of Iraq's heritage.

Lord Renfrew said that it might be time to ask questions in Parliament to clarify the intentions of the ACCP in the postwar regime.

McGuire Gibson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago who attended the ACCP's meetings with US officials at the Pentagon in January, was also concerned. He said he objected in principle to the ACCP's activities.

"Collecting and dealing in antiquities are diametrically opposed to scholarly research. Any artefact is best left in place... 80 per cent or more of what the object could tell you is lost when it its ripped out of the original context."

Mr Pearlstein told The THES this week: "The American Council has never tried to reform either American or foreign law."

He said he had spoken in a private capacity about Iraq's laws and stressed that the group was "not a dealer group" and represented legitimate collectors.

Mr Hawkins confirmed that the ACCP had concerns about the application of US law, but he said he was more concerned about the wider constitutional implications of the law than about protecting the interests of collectors and dealers.

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