Art collectors and dealers say they already are getting queries about artifacts looted from Iraq's museums, and the FBI said Monday that at least one suspected piece has been seized at an American airport.
Thousands of items, some dating back many thousands of years, were taken when U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime. The FBI has begun working with U.S. and international law enforcement agencies, as well as art collectors, auctioneers and experts, to try to recover them.
Lynne Chaffinch, manager of the FBI Art Theft Program, told a small group of reporters that she expects the thieves will attempt to sell most of the stolen pieces in wealthy countries such as the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, France and Switzerland. People in the United States already buy about 60 percent of the world's art, both legal and illegal.
"We've had some interesting motives, but mostly it's money," she said of the reasons behind art theft.
Chaffinch said Customs agents at an unspecified U.S. airport seized at least one item believed stolen from a Baghdad museum.
Customs officials declined comment, citing an ongoing investigation. But they did say that Customs agents at ports of entry nationwide are on the lookout for Assyrian, Sumerian, Mesopotamian and other treasures believed stolen.
Thieves usually attempt to sell stolen art and artifacts on the legal market. The FBI frequently hears about a suspect piece from a dealer or expert, then dispatches an undercover agent to contact the seller. Some of these agents have art history training so they can move undetected in a highly specialized world.
"You've got to be able to talk the talk," Chaffinch said.
The FBI will work closely with art collectors, auction houses, museum curators and even online sellers such as eBay to track down any Iraqi pieces offered for sale in the United States.
Key to that will be getting documentation about the stolen pieces from Iraq so that law enforcement officials here and abroad can authenticate those that are recovered. This case is far different from many art thefts, which can involve famous works by artists such as Picasso or Van Gogh rather than ancient pieces of pottery or writing tablets that only experts recognize.
"Somebody steals a Picasso or a Rembrandt, it's going to be hard to sell," Chaffinch said.
The FBI soon will send a team of agents, probably along with Chaffinch, to Baghdad to collect that information. That will be posted for police on the FBI's National Stolen Art File, which along with private and international databases list descriptions of some 100,000 pieces of stolen art.
The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute has also begun posting on its Internet site descriptions of some important artifacts believed stolen. Experts at the university say between 50,000 and 200,000 items were stolen from Baghdad museums after the city fell to U.S. forces.
A U.S. government task force that includes the FBI and Justice Department, State Department, Customs, CIA and Interpol is figuring out how to tackle the Iraqi looting case. Some thought is being given to using an amnesty or reward program to get thieves to return items, though officials stressed no final decisions have been made.
In addition, Interpol plans a conference May 5-6 in Lyons, France, to organize and coordinate international efforts to both recover the stolen pieces and arrest the perpetrators. Some Interpol investigators are already in Kuwait, awaiting U.S. military permission to travel to Baghdad.
The sheer scale of the thefts has sparked unprecedented publicity that is already helping law enforcement officials investigate the case, Chaffinch said. The fact that the items date to civilization's earliest times has led to worldwide interest in the case, she added.
"That's the cradle of civilization," she said. "It isn't just Iraqi cultural heritage -- it's the world's cultural heritage."