Iraq Museum Coins Found Safe

by Michael Bates

The Iraq Museum, which has been very much in the news lately, formerly included the only active numismatic center in the Arab Middle East, with a staff of at least three. It held a major collection of coins from archeological sites as well as gifts, and published a numismatic journal and a monograph series. Published news reports of looting, and the subsequent bitter debate about blame for this barbarity, led Islamic numismatists and some others to demand “But what about the coins?” No news could be obtained, either from the international press or from the few academics who had access to direct information. The earliest post-looting visitor to the museum was John Curtis, from the British Museum—the husband of Vesta Curtis, of the BM’s Department of Coins and Medals.

Finally, we now have the information sought, in the report of U.S. Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, head of the team assigned by the Department of Defense to investigate the Museum situation. It is entitled “Briefing from the Team Investigating Antiquity Loss in Iraq,” in DefenseLINK, online (http://​www.defenselink.mil/​transcripts/2003/​tr20030516-0202.html), May 16, 2003. It was brought to wider notice by Dr. Francis Deblauwe in an e-mail news list (more below) on May 23. He noted “the full transcript of the briefing provides a much better picture than the reports published in the newspapers.” This is certainly true for the interesting paragraph that mentions the coins:

Turning to the basement-level magazine, the evidence here strongly suggests that this magazine or storage room was compromised or entered not by random looters but by thieves with an intimate knowledge of the museum and its storage practices, for it is here they attempted to steal the most trafficable and easily transportable items stored in the most remote corner of the museum. The front door of this basement magazine was intact, but its bricked rear doorway was broken and entered. This magazine has four rooms, three of which were virtually untouched. Indeed, even the fourth room appears untouched except for a single corner, where almost 30 small boxes originally containing cylinder seals, amulets, pendants and jewelry had been emptied, while hundreds of surrounding larger but empty boxes were untouched. The thieves here had keys that were previously hidden elsewhere in the museum. These keys were to the storage cabinets that lay immediately adjacent to these boxes. In those storage cabinets were tens of thousands of Greek, Roman, Hellenistic and Islamic gold and silver coins, one of the finest collections anywhere. Ironically, the thieves appear to have dropped the keys to those storage cabinets in one of those plastic boxes on the floor. After frantically and unsuccessfully searching for them in the dark – there was no electricity, and they were using foam padding, lighting that afire for light – after searching for them in the dark and throwing the boxes in every direction, they left without opening any of the storage cabinets. After a methodical search, the [Department of Defense] team found the keys underneath the debris, underneath these strewn boxes. The inventory of this room will also take weeks, but it appears that little was taken and a catastrophic loss narrowly averted.


The entry to the exhibit of the al-Sarraf collection.

Col. Bogdanos identified himself at the press conference, after reading his report, as a reserve officer, normally a homicide prosecutor with the New York County [Manhattan] District Attorney’s Office for some fifteen years, with a master’s degree in classical studies. The reference to the gold and silver coins raises a question about the coppers. Normally, copper coins would be stored with the precious metal coins of the country or dynasty that issued them, so they should be in the same cabinets. Perhaps Col. Bogdanos was only told about the gold and silver as being the most significant materials.


A view of the al-Sarraf collection in the old exhibit

The Museum’s main coin collection, then, appears to be safe, although it would be reassuring to know that the cabinets have been opened to confirm that the coins are still inside. The fate of another part of the Museum’s coin collection has also been resolved. Early news reports referred to 1600 coins thought to be missing. With the help of two young Arab-Americans, Ban and Fawaz Saraf, who contacted the ANS for help not long after the war, it was possible to establish that these must be the Islamic collection of their father Abdullah Shukur al-Sarraf, donated to the Museum in 1969. The entire collection (1593 coins to be precise) was displayed in a room of its own, Hall 7 on the upper floor. The two Sarafs came to visit the Society on April 25, with a photocopy of the Museum’s publication al-Maskukat, number 2, devoted entirely to the collection and the new exhibit hall. There were already rumors that the collection was removed from the exhibit long before 2003. The Sarafs have since learned from people in Baghdad that the collection was stored away, like everything else on exhibit, while the Museum was closed in the 1990s, and is still in a vault outside the Museum. The entire al-Sarraf collection is listed in al-Maskukat 2, but only the rare and interesting coins are illustrated there.


One of the earliest known Islamic dirhams, struck in CE 698, before the general introduction of the reformed type—perhaps the Iraq Museum’s star coin.

The Museum’s numismatic staff has published extensively: four monographs, on the gold and silver coins of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphs and on the coins of the Medieval turkish Atabegs; some hundreds of articles in the journal of the Iraq Department of Antiquities, Sumer, since 1945; and a journal produced by the numismatic department itself, al-Maskukat (“Coins”), since 1969. Thirteen issues of the latter were produced, of which the Society’s library has the first six and a photocopy of the combined volume 10-11. The University of Chicago seems to have the only publicly available full set in North America.

Just recently, some addtional news has been received, from Dr. Lamia Al-Gailani of London, about the Museum’s former numismatic staff. The department itself was closed during the difficult times of the nineties, and as a result of retirements. Nasir al-Naqshabandi, the founder of numismatic research in Iraq, died in the sixties (his son Usama is now Director of the National Library in Baghdad). Muhammad Baqir al-Husayni has also died, a few years ago. Nahid Abd al-Razzaq Daftar is believed to be teaching in another Arab country. Widad Ali al-Qazzaz and Mahab Darwish al-Bakri have both retired, but the latter still serves as consultant for numismatics at the Museum. The Museum authorities, according to Dr. Al-Gailani, had hoped to re-open the department when conditions permit.

Several interesting websites and newslists have developed in the wake of the war and looting. Dr. Deblauwe, who made the above excerpts public, maintains the fascinating “2003 Iraq War & Archaeology” site at http://cctr.umkc.edu/user/fdeblauwe/iraq.html. Dr. Deblauwe is a former academic classicist, with degrees from UCLA and the Catholic University of Louvain. Most recently, he has been a “competitive intelligence analyst” with Sprint Corporation. He is a frequent contributor to the Iraqcrisis e-mail list, which is managed at the University of Chicago by Charles E. Jones, a bibliographer and researcher at the Oriental Institute. This list has become the principal source for in-depth information on the looting and its aftermath, collected from a variety of sources. The list is available for subscription at https://listhost.uchicago.edu/mailman/listinfo/iraqcrisis. Mr. Jones also maintains the Oriental Institute’s “Lost Treasures from Iraq” site, which includes a bibliography of works cataloguing the Museum’s collections (at http://​www-oi.uchicago.edu/​OI/IRAQ/​iraq.html). The entry http://www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/iraq_bibliography.html#IRAQ%20MUSEUM%20OBJECTS%20-%20COINS, provides a still incomplete listing of the Iraq Museum’s numismatic publications. The site http://www.baghdadmuseum.org/ is an excellent resource for all aspects of the museum’s collections, with a program to restore the museum and create an interactive database of its collections (but includes nothing about coins!). The museumstuff.com site can quickly call up a number of links to Iraq Museum information, http://www.museumstuff.com/cgi-bin/go.pl?w=Iraq+Museum. A pre-war site prepared by a Baghdad travel agency provides a visual tour of the Museum as it was before the recent disturbances: http://www.albaghdadiyatours.com/IRAQI_MUSEUM.htm.


Another view of the al-Sarraf collection in the old exhibit