Retrieval of antiquities highlights talk

Marine Col. Matthew Bogdano responds to a reporter’s question during a Pentagon press briefing. He spoke Friday at Shawnee State University.

For a lot of people, his day job would be interesting enough. For retired Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, being a homicide prosecutor for the New York County District Attorney’s Office is only a small part of his story.

The author of several books, perhaps most notably “Thieves of Baghdad,” Bogdanos has committed much of his life to retrieving priceless antiquities stolen from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Bogdanos was the keynote speaker Friday (February 16) at Shawnee State University as the school hosted the Ohio Valley Model Arab League Conference. The event brought together hundreds of students from across Ohio and surrounding states to discuss and debate such issues as helping Palestinians gain access to fresh water.

Since launching his efforts during Desert Storm, Bogdanos has helped recover some $150 million in artwork stolen from Southeast Asia. That part of Bogdanos’ story began when the U.S. took over Baghdad and deposed the country’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein. Bogdanos gave several reasons for the importance of his work.

“They’re not just pieces of crap alabaster,” Bogdanos said of the artwork he has helped recover. Not only does the sale of stolen artifacts help support global terrorism, he said, but he also talked about how the disappearance of such items marks the beginning of the destruction of cultures and countries. As just one historical example, Bogdanos talked about how the razing of Warsaw, Poland, preceded the Holocaust.

Bogdanos’ initial efforts all revolved around the looting of Iraq’s National Museum. Bogdanos was in Iraq at the time of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces. He said he learned of the looting of the museum the same way a lot of other people did, namely from the media. In his case, he was speaking with a reporter who asked him what the U.S. military was doing about the problem. Bogdanos didn’t say so explicitly, but at the time, the answer was essentially nothing. Bogdanos quickly set out to change that situation, contacting his superiors and asking for permission to lead a mission to track down items stolen from the museum. He and a team headed for Baghdad and the museum, where they ended up living for some time. Bogdanos joked that he told his bosses the mission would take three to five days; it took five years.

“There was destruction and chaos everywhere,” Bogdanos said, talking about Baghdad at the time of the U.S. invasion. He said his first move was to attempt to speak to whoever was in charge of the museum at the time. That person turned out to be a relative of Saddam Hussein’s. Bogdanos said the man could have grilled him about the war and the invasion, as many other politicians around the world have since. The man also had a gun sitting at his desk, and could have easily shot him, Bogdanos added. Instead, Bogdanos said the first thing the man did was ask him if he wanted some tea.

Bogdanos noted the museum was not very well respected by the locals, but had, in fact, been closed to the public since 1980 and was known as “Saddam’s gift shop.” Nevertheless, the penalty for stealing antiquities during Hussein’s reign was death. The dictator had famously beheaded on state-run TV several persons found guilty of the crime. So, the first thing Bogdanos did was to offer amnesty to anyone who returned any missing items.

During his talk, Bogdanos gave numerous examples of famous items looted from the museum. Perhaps the most notable was the so-called “Treasure of Nimrud,” consisting of numerous invaluable artworks and gold pieces found in four crypts dating back centuries. Though it took some time, those items were recovered.

Bogdanos told several stories about the recovery of different items from the Baghdad Museum. He said his favorite involved a man stopped at a roadside checkpoint. In the man’s trunk, underneath a stockpile of weapons was a cache of 5,000-year-old vases. According to Bogdanos, the man’s question to the U.S. military team was, “How did those get there?”

At Shawnee, Bogdanos finished his comments with a quote from poet William Blake about children laughing on a hill. The stolen artwork he has recovered belongs to those children, Bogdanos said.

This was the first year Shawnee has hosted the Model Arab League Conference. Opening ceremonies were held Thursday, and the student delegates representing various Arab countries held conferences Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Shawnee Provost Jeffrey Bauer said he was proud his school could host the event, and said he assumed students gathered for Bogdanos’ speech would be among those influencing the future of Arab-American relations and the Arab world, in general.

“I can tell you that Shawnee State is a very young institution, but one that is committed to diversity,” Bauer told the gathered students.

Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931