Q & A with Stolen-Treasure Hunter Matthew Bogdanos

Roundup: Talking About History

As the tanks rolled into Iraq in March, 2003, Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos and his counterterrorism team followed right behind. Tasked with investigating battle-related criminal activity, the team was soon redirected to Iraq's National Museum when news broke that priceless artifacts were being looted. They camped out in the museum for the remainder of his tour of duty, tallying the artifacts stolen and hunting down the thieves. It was, perhaps, serendipity or kismet, that Bogdanos, who holds advanced degrees in law and classics from Columbia University, would be present to take on the task of recovering some of the world's greatest stolen treasures. In his book Thieves of Baghdad, Bogdanos describes the looting, and the ongoing investigation, with passion, erudition and candor. TIME sat down with Bogdanos on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war. (Watch the interview with Bogdanos.)

Let's chat first about the reopening of the Iraqi museum recently in Baghdad. When you saw that on the news, what was on you mind?

It was an extraordinary first step. The Iraq museum is home to the single finest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities the world has ever seen: The Vase of Warka, the first naturalist depiction of human life in stone; The Mask of Warka, the first naturalist depiction of the human face; The Bassetki statue, the first known lost-wax method of copper casting. On and on and on. Every step you take in the Iraq museum, you get to say"the first." If there were truly a cradle of civilization, you can't get closer to it than the Iraq museum. Its opening proclaims to the world that Iraq is more than just a bunch of bombers and people who would murder each other in the name of religion. It's not perfect. There are 28 galleries; two were opened. They were only open for a couple hours. But it was a beginning.

And this museum has not been open like that in some time, right?

Correct. In fact the museum was closed in September of 1980 when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and Iran started lobbing missiles into Baghdad. So the museum was closed from that time until opening for a day in 2003 and then until this opening. [It's] only been open fewer than a half dozen times and never open to the general public. The museum itself, in the last several decades has been called Saddam's gift shop by the average Iraqi. (See pictures of treasure hunting in Afghanistan.)...

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