Chasing Down History and the 'Thieves of Baghdad' After the American invasion of 2003, Looters took advantage of the Iraqi government's collapse to steal priceless antiquities in the Iraq Museum. The new book Thieves of Baghdad chronicles efforts to recover the stolen art.
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Chasing Down History and the 'Thieves of Baghdad'

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Chasing Down History and the 'Thieves of Baghdad'

Chasing Down History and the 'Thieves of Baghdad'

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One of the most powerful images during the fall of Baghdad was the sight of looters pouring out of the National Museum. Tens of thousands of antiquities had been carried off in 2003 while the museum stood virtually unprotected.


Hundreds of miles south in Basra, Marine Reserve Colonel Matthew Bogdanos heard those stories and made it his mission to get the treasures back. He was uniquely qualified. In civilian life he was an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, used to showing up at crime scenes at all hours, and he has a master's degree in classical studies from Columbia. So Matthew Bogdanos was allowed to handpick an elite group from his unit which had been tracking terrorist networks through their financing and weapons smuggling. The Marines made their way through the desert and in April of 2003 walked into the ruined National Museum. In his new book, "Thieves of Baghdad," Matthew Bogdanos describes the moment.

Colonel MATTHEW BOGDANOS (Marine): We don't get to say the word `first' very often in our lives, but I knew from my studies that every step you took, every time you turned in the Iraq museum you would be face to face with the first. The first naturalist depiction of a human being. The first votive vase depicting human life. The first wax method of bronze casting, which is why I immediately put together a team to move north into Baghdad, and within 36 hours we were at the museum.

MONTAGNE: How did you pull that off? You say immediately you put together a team. You did draw--I think you write something along the lines of--your unit was made up of half cops and the other half cops in camouflage.

Mr. BOGDANOS: We had in our unit a dozen different agencies of the US federal government, from CIA to the FBI to the DEA to US Customs to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. When I heard about the museum I did what any good Marine does, I adapted, improvised and overcame, and I simply decided that I would take a portion of my team, 14 altogether out of the approximately 100, and we would go to Baghdad and we would put a stop to this and begin the investigation and begin the recovery.

MONTAGNE: I just wonder as a New York district attorney, as a prosecutor, did you suspect some of those who were running the museum as being implicated in the thefts there?

Mr. BOGDANOS: One of the decisions I made was whether or not this was going to be a prosecution or a recovery effort. I chose to begin the recovery on the very first day we arrived. And I had to view each and every individual that I came across--Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, Baathist--as a potential witness and a potential informant for the investigation. But I wasn't naive either. It became abundantly clear over the course of the next six months that we actually physically lived at the museum that many of the museum staff were implicated. Many of the museum staff did actually participate in the thefts, and not just during April, but in the months and years preceding the war. Remember, the museum itself had been closed for 20 out of the last 24 years.

MONTAGNE: It took you just days to recover one really important object, and that's a vase portraying an Assyrian king that's about 3,000 years old from 858 BC.

Mr. BOGDANOS: We recovered the statue of King Shalmaneser within the first few days of investigation. We used the press for the man who brought us back this statue. We televised this and we had him talk to the press, both the English-speaking and the Arabic-speaking press, so that other Iraqis would know that the reward for turning in antiquity was not death or imprisonment or prosecution but our thanks and our gratitude--and a cup of tea.

MONTAGNE: Well, what was for you the most thrilling find?

Mr. BOGDANOS: It was a simple, nondescript pot--a pottery jar from Tell Hassuna from the sixth millennium BC predating the wheel by some 2,000 years. And it had this wonderful burnt-red okra linear design on the outside and I recognized it from my graduate school books and studies. But I turned to the other members in my team and I said, `Do you know what I have here'? And one of them said, `Yeah, it's a jar.' I said, `No, this is from the sixth millennium BC,' arguably one of the first known pottery jars like this with this kind of design on the outside. `Look how perfect it is,' and one of my team members said, `Well, can I hold it'? And he put it in his hand and the metamorphosis that I saw in him as he held it in his hand--he held it like a baby. And he immediately said, `Oh, quick someone take a picture.' And then all the other guys on my team, they lined up behind him and said, `Me next. Me next.' And these are 40-year-old men who had been in combat for weeks at that point and here they are saying, `Me next. I want to hold this and I want a picture of me holding it.' And that was one of the moments when the light went on for many of the people on my team and they realized we're doing something here. We are really doing something for future generations.

MONTAGNE: Looking ahead, how many of your top 40 list of most important missing treasures are still out there and where do you think they are?

Mr. BOGDANOS: Of the top 40 we have only recovered 15, so 25 of those are still missing. Fortunately, of the 15 which we've recovered, they are the most historically significant pieces. But we're not done. And until we recover everything. I will have considered my mission in Baghdad a failure. Now where are these pieces? Sadly, these pieces have buyers despite the fact that they will cost tens of millions of dollars; despite the fact that the individual that buys such recognizable items can never publicly acknowledge owning these items. Nonetheless, there are buyers, and these buyers are in New York, London, Paris and Tokyo. And I want to raise the public awareness. I want people to understand it's a crime. Whether you are a museum or you live on Madison Avenue or Bond Street, it's a crime. You are depriving future generations of the joy in seeing these items. They're also funding the insurgency because we have found that the trafficking in illegal antiquities has gone to funding the insurgency.

MONTAGNE: Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos is the co-author, along with writer William Patrick, of "Thieves of Baghdad," which traces the story of the lost treasures of Iraq's National Museum.

Thank you for joining us.

Mr. BOGDANOS: Thank you, Renee. Thank you so much for having me.

MONTAGNE: Back in his civilian job as a prosecutor in Manhattan, Matthew Bogdanos continues to track down stolen antiquities, and you can see treasure and hear more--including his story about a secret staircase, lost keys and a hidden treasure--at

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