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Editor’s Note, September/October 2006

Hunting for Treasure

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, September/October 2006 | Volume 27, Number 5

They arrived in strange ways. A clay pot from the sixth millennium B.C.E. turned up inside a trash bag. A copper statue from 2250 B.C.E. was pulled from a cesspool behind a Baghdad warehouse.

One by one, the treasures of Iraq, looted from its museums and vaults before and during the American invasion in April 2003, are being hunted down in Iraq and around the world. The man who led the recovery effort in Iraq, Col. Matthew Bogdanos, talks about the experience with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. "The reality is there are pieces that are so universally recognizable, they can't ever surface. The dirty little secret is that there are people who will spend tens of millions of dollars to own a piece of art they can never show to anyone but their closest friends."

Bogdanos has finished his active duty with the Marine Corps and is back in the district attorney's office in New York, where he heads a new office that tracks the international trade in stolen antiquities. With its concentration of money and collectors, New York is one of the likely destination points for these treasures, along with London, Paris, or Tokyo. En route, the stolen objects go through third countries to be laundered so they can turn up in museums or be sold by auction houses, no questions asked. Six thousand of the pieces missing from the Baghdad museum have been recovered, Bogdanos says. Close to two thousand were returned in an amnesty program-they were returned by "average Iraqis simply because we asked them to," Bogdanos says; another four thousand were seized in raids after tips came from informants.

The Mask of Warka, believed to be the oldest known naturalistic sculpture of a human face, was found buried in the backyard of a farmhouse. The Sacred Vase of Warka, the oldest known stone ritual vessel, arrived curbside at the museum in the trunk of a car with ninety-five other pieces. The treasure of Nimrud, a collection of gold jewelry and precious stones from the eighth and ninth centuries B.C.E., was recovered after 640,000 gallons of water was pumped from the flooded basement of the Central Bank of Iraq.

The lure of gold is as old as history. In an NEH-supported film airing this fall, we look at a period of madness in the nineteenth century: The Gold Rush. The film examines the period after the discovery of gold in California in 1848: it offers passages from the notebooks of some who weren't so lucky, of men who went broke, of men who found themselves chased by homegrown vigilantes as the veins of gold ran thin. Some found livelihoods cooking and running hotels and doing laundry; many more simply ran out of dreams and headed home.

While the promise of gold drew prospectors to the West in the mid-nineteenth century, it was the drama of the landscape itself that lured artists at the turn of the twentieth. They saw manifest destiny in a different way—in the riches of desert and mountain and sea. The work they did came to define American Modernism.

"The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890–1950," an exhibition supported by NEH, opens in late October in Houston and moves to Los Angeles in the spring. It examines America's covenant with the land and how artists from Thomas Moran to Georgia O'Keeffe and Jackson Pollock have conceived it. "I found," O'Keeffe once said, "I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way-things I had no words for. "