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Statement by Philippe de Montebello, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, On the Looting of the Baghdad Museum

April 21, 2003

Even as the Metropolitan Museum continues working to open on May 8 its long-scheduled, and now providential international loan exhibition "Art of the First Cities," featuring so many masterpieces of art from ancient Iraq, we join the greater museum community in mourning the horrifying plunder of the Baghdad Museum. And we stand prepared to join our fellow institutions to begin restoring the Baghdad Museum at the earliest possible opportunity.

If the original reports of rampant looting and senseless destruction prove true, the devastating loss to world culture is incalculable. That this dazzling artistic record of one of the cradles of civilization may have vanished is a staggering blow to history and art alike.

In a message to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Director General of UNESCO, and in several conversations since with Karl Rove, Senior Advisor to President Bush, and other White House staff, I have proposed that policies be implemented immediately in Iraq to encourage the safe and prompt return of surviving works. I believe we must offer amnesty and—however distasteful—compensation to those who return looted objects. At the same time, it is also important that an immediate and complete moratorium be imposed on the acquisition of art and artifacts that may recently have come from Iraq. It is our fervent hope that the records of the Baghdad Museum can somehow be re-assembled, and serve as a checklist to identify, locate, and return stolen art. I am pleased that these suggestions have been greeted with enthusiasm by the White House.

It is essential, however, that all three elements of the strategy be implemented concurrently. To simply cut off the market without offering amnesty and rewards might encourage thieves to destroy objects to avoid prosecution, or to melt them down to retrieve some value from their precious metal content. Such a senseless, and avoidable, aftershock would merely compound the recent tragedy.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art will send representatives to the forthcoming museum conference in London organized by the British Museum, and will, at the appropriate time, send its own staff of experts—curators or conservators, as needed, in coordination with our museum colleagues from the British Museum, the Louvre, and other institutions—to Baghdad to aid in the rehabilitation of the Museum and, hopefully, the return and preservation of its collections.

The most recent reports and rumors from Baghdad offer some glimmer of hope that perhaps some of the greatest of the museum's treasures may have been moved off site before the war began. If so, it is time for the people involved in this effort to come forward, report such activities, relieve the world's anxiety, and of course arrange the prompt return of all such objects. Meanwhile we must do whatever we can to monitor the situation closely, with the full and sustained support of local and coalition forces on the ground.

The effort to remedy this tragic situation must take precedence over the understandable quest to learn why it occurred. The burden to provide remedies belongs to all of us. For just as the storied collections of the Baghdad Museum reflected the roots of so much of global civilization, the obligation to save what might yet be saved, and return what must quickly be returned, must be shared by citizens throughout the globe: by everyone and anyone who aspires to preserve, learn from, and be inspired by the greatest examples of human creativity.

No matter what the cost, we must do everything in our collective and individual power to repair this horrific assault on the history and culture that all civilized people share.

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