Let’s try to sort this out

The Washington Post article, quoted by Sullivan in his aptly-named “Idiocy of the Week” column, does in fact give the number of looted items as 33 — from the main collection.

On Saturday, a team of U.S. investigators from the Customs Service and State Department released a summary of a preliminary report that concluded that 3,000 pieces were missing. And more importantly, of the 8,000 or so exhibit-quality, world-class pieces of jewelry, statues and cuneiform clay tablets, only 47 were unaccounted for.

Today, Iraqi officials at the museum confirmed the U.S. numbers, with a slight adjustment.

“There are only 33 pieces from the main collections that are unaccounted for,” George said. “Not 47. Some more pieces have been returned.” Museum staff members had taken some of the more valuable items home and are now returning them.

So the actual number of looted items appears to be 3,033, an inconvenient fact Sullivan only acknowledges near the end of his column — dismissing the three thousand additional missing pieces as “minor objects of limited value.” But here’s how the International Herald Tribune covered the story on May 24:

PARIS A Unesco survey of Iraq’s smashed and looted cultural treasures indicates that 2,000 to 3,000 objects may be missing from the National Museum in Baghdad alone and that the entire contents of the National Library are lost beyond retrieval.

In addition, more than 1,500 modern paintings and sculptures from the city’s Museum of Fine Arts are still missing and only 400 have been recovered, according to Mounir Bouchenaki, assistant director general for culture at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“This is a real cultural disaster,” said Bouchenaki, who led an international team of experts to Baghdad. “And we will have to redo everything from scratch in rebuilding all these cultural institutions.”

He said that earlier reports by U.S. officials that as few as 25 pieces had been lost were “a distortion of reality” because they described only major pieces taken from the public galleries of the museum but not objects in the reserve collections.

“To give a real figure for the losses, we are going to have to draw up an inventory,” he said. “Only then will we be able to assess the exact number of objects missing in the museum.”

He added: “Nobody has talked about the losses at the Museum of Fine Art, which is a very important one. The National Library is a real disaster. It’s gone.”

Bouchenaki, an Algerian, is particularly well-placed to assess the damage. An Arab-speaking archeologist, he has worked in the National Museum on several occasions, most recently in 1998 when he helped organize work to install air conditioning and video surveillance in the building.

As one of the readers who brought this to my attention notes:

It’s typical of people who have never been behind the scenes in a museum to think that all the good stuff is on display – however, national museums tend to have vast collections that simply can’t be displayed all at once. In addition to the 3000 artifacts missing, there are also 1500 paintings missing from their art museum and the national library is, well, gone. There are also are archaeological sites scattered throughout the country that are most likely free-for-alls for looters, and as someone who has worked on an extensively looted site I can only guess at the artifacts and data that are lost for good.

Bottom line? The looting was nowhere near as bad as initally reported, but is still far more extensive than the revisionists would have you believe.

And then there’s this — also from the article Sullivan uses to buttress his misleading claims:

Among the missing items is the 5,000-year-old Warka Vase, a three-foot alabaster relief sculpture depicting scenes of everyday life at the dawn of civilization. The vase had been bolted to a podium, Russell said, but looters breached the glass case and ripped the vase from its base.

Also missing is the Warka Face, which, at 3,000 years old, is perhaps the oldest naturalistic sculpture of a woman’s face.

“It’s gorgeous,” Russell said. “Like the best of classical Greek sculpture.”

The National Museum will open its doors for a glimpse of its hidden and recovered treasures in July. But now, George and the museum staff toil in dirty rooms filled with swept garbage. The staff is methodically going through the collection’s catalogue — index card by index card — without benefit of computers, telephones or much outside help.

George said the storerooms “are still a mess; there’s shards of artifacts still on the floor.” In the main galleries, guards and visitors have stubbed out their cigarette butts on massive stone tablets covered in cuneiform. Broken egg-shaped vessels four feet tall lie in hallways, cracked and dusty.

“Thank God, we were saved from the worst,” George said. “But look, these things can never be replaced. That is why they call them priceless.”

In other words, even if it were true that “only 33” items had been looted — well, what if the Smithsonian were looted and the “only” thing taken was the Hope Diamond?

And as I keep trying to point out, that still doesn’t excuse US negligence in the matter.

Unfortunately, this will be conventional wisdom — Howard Kurtz is already repeating the “only 33” spin uncritically, without even mentioning the 3.000 other looted pieces reported in his own newspaper:

Everyone in journalism makes mistakes, especially routine mistakes — the misspelled name, the mangled title, the wrong date. In this case, though, the press told us that, in a crushing loss for western civilization, 170,000 artifacts were stolen.

The actual number: 33.

Yes, some of the booty was later returned, but 169,967 items? Maybe Don Rumsfeld was right that TV kept showing the same vase being carried away over and over.

I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the self-appointed fact checkers of the blogosphere aren’t going to be fact-checking this one. They’re going to be too busy promulgating the spin.

I hope my friends at Salon do a follow up on this one. And I hope Kurtz issues a clarification. We’ll see, I guess.

Update: via Sullywatch, I see that Salon did post a correction of sorts — in the form of this Joe Conason column, which makes many of the same points as the preceding entry.