The story begins about 27 centuries ago, when Sennacherib, king of Assyria, the greatest empire the world had known, failed to conquer Jerusalem in 701 B.C.
"And that night, the angel of the Lord went forth and slew 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians," the Bible says in 2 Kings 19. "Then Sennacherib, king of Assyria, went home, and dwelt at Nineveh."
It wasn't his last defeat.
Last month John Malcolm Russell, a Columbia University art historian who is one of the world's leading experts on Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh, got some wrenching news. An unknown seller was offering 10 pieces of art from ancient Mesopotamia, which is now southern Iraq. A lawyer for a prospective buyer, photos in hand, wanted to know: Did Russell think they might have been stolen?
"I knew right away where they were from," Russell said last week. The pictures were of fragments from magnificent alabaster reliefs that had lined the walls of the palace at least until 1990, when Russell photographed them on his last trip before the Persian Gulf war.
Among those reliefs, part of an archaeological site museum near the city of Mosul, were carvings telling the Assyrian side of the Jerusalem campaign. Sennacherib's version was that the Israelites had paid tribute and he left.
But international sanctions have impoverished the Iraqis, many of whom have sold family heirlooms for food. Today the country's archaeological treasures are also up for sale.
The life and times of one of the world's greatest and oldest civilizations had been carved on massive stone slabs up to 8 feet square. The photographs Russell saw were of square-foot fragments hacked from those slabs.
"It only dawned on me a few hours later that what this meant was that there was a pile of broken stone left behind," he said, "that what we had here was not just an act of vandalism and looting but a conservation emergency of the first magnitude."
Russell says the exact extent of the damage is unknown. "I don't know if these are the only 10 pieces on the market. I'd be surprised. Ten sculptures from Sennacherib's palace is an unheard of number to appear on the market at once."
But who did it?
Many poor countries with rich archaeological sites cannot afford to safeguard them, and are vulnerable to smugglers. By almost all accounts, though, Iraq -- even under Saddam Hussein -- took good care of its rediscovered antiquities through most of this century.
The sanctions against it have kept archaeologists and art historians from the sites, and difficulties felt by Iraqis have made the country's centuries-old ruins prey to thieves, with or without the connivance of local officials. Most archaeologists and diplomats believe that there is no high-level involvement in these thefts.
"Given the economic hardships that people are under, obviously there are many who resort to criminal acts to try to make some money," said Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's representative at the United Nations. "There are a thousand sites that need to be guarded and provided with security. It is difficult for the antiquities establishment in Baghdad to find those resources."
Russell said that he thinks people who steal and sell items are paid a pittance, and that pieces small enough to be carted away on donkeys or in backpacks slip easily into Iran, Syria or Jordan. Once on the market, they change hands for thousands of dollars, often tens of thousands.
Russell, who alerted the U.S. Customs Service, Scotland Yard and arts organizations, hopes prospective buyers of Assyrian art will refuse pieces of uncertain origin, dampening the trade.
"Iraq was a country that cherished its heritage and had an excellent antiquities department that carried on its work right through the miserable Iran-Iraq war," he said.
"It's only with sanctions and the breakdown of the middle class -- as groups of desperate people do desperate things -- that we have a breakdown in the national will or pride in that heritage. This is fostered by desperation. It could happen anywhere."
Pub Date: 12/08/96