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Awards & Honors: 2005 National Humanities Medalist

Matthew Bogdanos

Reading Homer's Iliad at age twelve sparked a lifelong passion for the classics in Matthew Bogdanos, and led to his latest venture--retrieving antiquities looted from the Iraq National Museum during the early days of the U.S. invasion.

Among the lost items were some of the world's most precious antiquities from the cradle of civilization: the world's oldest carved ritual vessel called the Warka vase, an ivory plaque adorned with lapis and gold depicting a lioness attacking a Nubian, and the forty-five-hundred-year-old hammered gold helmet of King Meksalamdug.

Bogdanos, a Marine colonel, led a recovery team into the Iraq National Museum on April 21, 2003. The team spent that first day inspecting the premises with museum official Donny George, and were overjoyed to find some of the rarest items still intact. But forty items were missing from the public gallery, 3,150 from storage rooms, and ten thousand from the basement. "It is inconceivable to me that the basement was breached and the items stolen without an intimate insider's knowledge of the museum," says Bogdanos.

A number of Iraqi citizens accepted Bogdanos's offer of amnesty and turned in more than twenty-seven hundred of the looted pieces. An additional three hundred or so are back as the result of raids and information from informers. Yet, more than ten thousand treasures are still missing, vanished behind a veil of money and mystery that is the black market.

Bogdanos documents the high-priced, illegal brokering of antiquities in his book Thieves of Baghdad. "Don't call them collectors," he says. "Call them what they are. Criminals. You should not assume that the people who are doing this are doing it because of an appreciation for art.

"Because before you're willing to spend forty million dollars for an item that you can never publicly acknowledge owning or ever publicly exhibit, you are going to get it authenticated and when you get it authenticated you are going to get it authenticated by a name, not a grad student. Someone who's written an article on this piece. Someone who's written a book. Someone who's head of an institute, someone who's department head at a university, or a museum. And there are, sadly, no shortage of those people."

Setting up the task force to search for antiquities in Iraq was complicated. There were concerns for the safety of his team, which included personnel from the Customs Service, the FBI, the CIA, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Then there were the difficulties of explaining how a criminal investigation could be conducted in a war zone, and worries about degrading other important counter-terrorism missions.

"So there were three major objections, all of which were legitimate. I ultimately believed that it was worth it, to get to Baghdad as quickly as possible in order to stop this cultural catastrophe, and to start recovering whatever we could."

Bogdanos received the go-ahead to start pursuing stolen artifacts from a general with whom he had worked before. "He trusted me," says Bogdanos. "He said, 'That pit bull thing you do in New York? Do that in Baghdad. And don't get killed.'"

The general was referring to Bogdanos's role as senior homicide trial counsel in the New York County District Attorney's Office, where he has presided over nearly two hundred trials. A Marine reservist, Bogdanos was recalled to active duty for Desert Storm and then again in 2001 when the attacks of September 11 destroyed the World Trade Center--as well as the lower Manhattan apartment Bogdanos shared with wife Claudia and their children.

The prosecutor is also a pugilist, sparring out of court as a middleweight boxer with a 23-3 amateur record. Bogdanos brings that fighting energy in his search to recover stolen artifacts. Currently on leave from both his military and civilian responsibilities, he envisions a global task force to take on the black market in illegal antiquities.

By CB