In the 1999 film Three Kings, cited by President Bill Clinton as one of his favorites, a small group of rogue American soldiers attempt to loot Saddam Hussein’s Iraq of a secret cache of gold bullion. It made for a compelling story, but it’s all fantasy, right? Not quite. In fact, the recent discovery of a Picasso painting stolen during the first Gulf War is casting an interesting shadow over an unfortunate byproducy of the Iraqi conflict. And the group trying to solve the problem may surprise you.
This past week, Iraqi forces revealed the Picasso, entitled “the Naked Woman,” which was allegedly stolen from the Kuwait National Museum in the invasion leading up to the first Gulf War. While the art world is already questioning the piece’s authenticity and the Louvre has basically disowned it, the finding is another valuable piece of artwork stolen from the region.
In Iraq, art looting was almost immediate during this most recent conflict. While American forces stormed the capital, Iraq’s National Museum, made up of 12 buildings housing countless ancient artworks, were left unguarded. In the subsequent months and years, American forces have raided enemy bunkers housing not just guns and ammunitions, but works of art as well. Marine Reserve and New York prosecutor Col. Matthew Bogdanos eventually led a federal probe into the looting of what he called “the finest collection of antiquities the world has ever seen.” According to the Unviersity of Pennsylvania’s Richard Zettler, some 10,000-15,000 items from the National Museum are still missing.
But it wasn’t just the museum that was pilfered. That same year, 2003, a Fox News engineer was accused of smuggling paintings into the United States after they were stolen from the palatial home of Uday Hussein. Now UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, is working to stop the problem of looting Iraq of its considerable art resources. After years of following the looting, earlier this year, UNESCO began meeting with the world’s foremost art experts to assess the damage done in Iraq, also conferring with dealers to confirm they wouldn’t deal in stolen Iraqi antiquities, some of which date up to 5000 years before Christ. According to their findings, up to 170,000 items were taken from the National Gallery. A concrete solution hasn’t been reached yet, but the first steps have been taken to try to undo some serious, and mostly unacknowledged, damage of the war in Iraq.