Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Recovering Raided Treasures

A group of artists are determined to track down paintings and sculptures looted from the capital’s flagship arts centre.
By Salaam Jihad

The Saddam Arts Centre may bear the name of a despised dictator, but it once held some of Iraq's most valued 20th century art before being looted and destroyed as the regime fell.


Iraqi art historians consider the loss and damage of their heritage to be a national disaster – and many have now joined forces to trawl the antique markets and bazaars in an attempt to find vital artefacts and buy them back.


Art student Mohammed Khared al-Rahal, who witnessed the scene at the centre on April 9, the day Saddam’s regime fell, told IWPR that much of the damage was random.


“I saw a man carrying a wooden statue, and when I challenged him, he told me, 'I need it [for my oven] to bake bread’,” Rahal said, adding that he managed to stop the man burning the idol – which turned out to by a work of art by the Iraqi sculptor Mohammed Hekmat.


However, other looters clearly knew what they were looking for. While some people were burning or tearing up paintings, others clearly knew what they were looking for.


“They were carefully cutting the pictures out of their frames,” said Rahal. “These people really knew the value of the pictures."


Since then, a number of Iraqi artists have banded together in attempt to recover what they can of the lost treasures, and have formed a committee to locate and buy any stolen items available.


Committee member Taha Wahayib says the centre’s 8,000-strong collection was “part of our body, our blood”, and while the majority of the works were destroyed, local artists were determined to trace as surviving items as they can.


The committee has taken up contributions to purchase the artworks, receiving around 5,000 US dollars to date, of which around a fifth has been spent.


Sometimes recovering them is simply a matter of cruising Baghdad's antique bazaars or junk markets.


One member found "Motherhood" - a piece by Iraq’s foremost sculptor Jawad Salim - in an antiques boutique. The piece, which is worth an estimated 10,000 dollars, was bought for only 200.


While the committee is normally tight-lipped about its work, it’s understood that around 160 pieces have been recovered to date.


However, its members will not disclose any information about more valuable artworks of art which have been traced to private collections, and are earmarked for recovery at a later date when security at the centre has been improved.


In the meantime, many pieces are stored in committee members’ homes, after the items have been scrupulously recorded and photographed for the records.


One of the most controversial issues facing the committee, however, is what to do with the centre's many works of political art – especially portraits of Saddam commissioned by the former regime.


Although some members want such material left alone, the committee has recovered one painting of Saddam by Faeq Hassan, a pioneer of realism, known for his studies of horses, traditional Baghdad homes and landscapes of the north.


In this case, however, Faeq’s picture was of the young Saddam Hussein, vice-president at the time, greeting the Iraqi masses alongside then-president Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr.


“Our duty is to get back all the pictures, Saddam’s or others,” said committee member Taha Wahayib, adding that “the culture ministry can then decide whether to keep or burn them”.


Salaam Jihad is a trainee journalist based in Baghdad.