At its peak, Iraq Museum collections contained hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable items, collectively representing over 10,000 years of Iraqi heritage (Singer 15). In addition to the many collections of ancient jewelry, stones, and vases, some of the most precious antiquities included:
Considering the age and uniqueness of the items, the collections of the Iraq Museum were, and still are, widely considered to be some of the most important records of human archaeological history.
In April of 2003, as the U.S. military invaded the city of Baghdad, the Iraq Museum suffered a massive looting that resulted in the destruction and theft of tens of thousands of artifacts over a period of days (Petersen 181). Armed with various weapons such as hammers and crowbars, looters ransacked the museum with varying degrees of success; many precious items were found broken or destroyed while others were later confirmed as stolen (Singer 17; McCalister 31). Items stolen included many of the Sumerian seals, the Golden Harp of Ur (ca. 2500 BC), and a collection of over a thousand pieces of precious metal and stone jewels referred to as the Treasure of Nimrud (Phuong 996; Singer 16). The museum itself also sustained damage during the days-long looting as doors and display cases were destroyed to gain access to the antiquities (Petersen 187).
Many argue that the United States and its military bear much of the responsibility for this great loss and devastation of cultural property. The U.S. has been heavily criticized for their complicity in the looting of the Iraq Museum due to their failure to provide adequate protection of the cultural institution and its contents post-invasion, especially since field experts had previously warned that the museum would be a prime target for damage and would need robust security (Petersen 187). Additional investigations have uncovered other noteworthy evidence suggesting that, though a large contingent of looters were random individuals, some were professional thieves who had intimate knowledge of the museum and unexpected access privileges. For example, many thousands of pieces were stolen from an obscure basement storage area that was unlikely to be known to the public and had been secured with two different sets of keys only accessible by a few employees (McCalister 31). Other reports indicate that some looters displayed other signs of professional thievery evidenced by their ability to identify and bypass copies, decoys, and less-valuable items and in favor of specific, high-value items (Poudrier 10).
The recovery of stolen items from the Iraq Museum is still ongoing, though thousands of pieces have been successfully recovered either via voluntary return by individuals or through investigations and criminal proceedings (Glazer). To incentivize the return of stolen artifacts, amnesty and ‘no questions asked’ policies were enacted for those who voluntarily returned items (Phuong 996). International efforts to identify the antiquities at customs locations and border crossings were also helpful in the recovery and return of museum pieces (McCalister 35). Unfortunately, some of the most precious items stolen had not yet been cataloged or documented by museum curators and staff, presenting a unique challenge to the identification of these pieces, and thus their recovery is difficult and unlikely (McCalister 31).
Many organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, have provided financial aid and other assistance to promote the recovery, rebuilding, and preservation of Iraq’s culture history. The Iraq Museum opened its doors to dignitaries, officials, and scholars in early 2009, with an estimated 9,000 pieces still missing (Morris; Siehr 702). It officially reopened to the public in 2015 (Morris). Some of the notable items included in the permanent exhibition are ones that had taken during the looting and then subsequently recovered, such as the Warka Vase and the Mask of Warka (Morris). International efforts to recover the remaining thousands of missing artifacts still continue.