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Missing Artwork from Modern Art Museum in Baghdad


Alumna works to compile list of works missing from Modern Art Museum in Baghdad

DENTON, Texas (AP) - Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Nada Shabout returned to the country where she grew up. As an art history professor, one of the first stops she wanted to make was the modern art museum. But Shabout, who was in Baghdad just months after the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion, soon found that

seeing the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art would be impossible. Not only had it been burned and looted, but the area was blocked off and dangerous. As she traveled around the city and spoke to art experts, she realized that thousands of works were looted from the museum, possibly gone forever. She made it her mission to document what had been there. Five years later, she's still working toward that goal. "I saw a great need of help," said Shabout, an associate professor of art history at the University of North Texas. "It was natural for me to do this."
On that fact-finding trip to Iraq with a group of fellow academics, gallery owners and artists told Shabout how pieces once displayed in the museum were now selling on the black market or in other galleries.

Of the 8,600 works in the museum before the invasion, only 1,420 remained after the looting and some of those were damaged, said Hassan Qussai, an official in Iraq's culture ministry
Qussai, who once headed public relations for the modern art museum and sits on an Iraqi committee in charge of retrieving stolen works, said that so far, 59 of the 7,180 missing pieces have been recovered and authorities in Iraq are working to document the rest.
Shabout, who specializes in Arab art, particularly Iraqi artists, plans to eventually publish a list of what was once in the museum. Such a publication could not only help law enforcement identify works floating through black markets, but also be a reference for museums to ensure they aren't buying stolen goods, she said. So far, she has authenticated _ with images and documentation _ about 500 works once in the museum.

Shabout has started working with a San Francisco-based nonprofit called The Alexandria Archive Institute to create a Web site depicting the authenticated works. Dia Azzawi, an Iraqi artist who moved to London in 1976, said about 16 of his works, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s were in the modern art museum. He said that some turned up on the market and were purchased by a Baghdad gallery owner. The gallery owner tried to return them to the museum, but was told to hold on to them because they were safer in the gallery. Azzawi said the museum had many important works by "pioneers" of the Iraqi modern art movement from the 1950s.

Since 2003, Shabout's painstaking research has taken her to Paris, Jordan, London and other locations to determine what was in the museum. Her resources include photographs of some of the works that hung in the museum, its catalogs and books published by the Ministry of Culture. People around the world have helped, including some who sent her catalogs purchased from the museum before the war. She also has to be mindful of the motives of some who provide information. For instance, art dealers have denied certain pieces she authenticated were ever in the museum, a clue that the dealer may have sold that piece.
«I did a lot of sort of detective work,» said Shabout, who will teach contemporary Arab art history at the University of Jordan in Amman as a Fulbright scholar this fall.

The Iraqi Museum of Modern Art, formerly known as the Saddam Center for the Arts, was inaugurated in the mid-1980s. After Baghdad fell, much of the attention was on the looting of the Iraqi National Museum _ home of ancient art and antiquities. As a result, Shabout said people seemed to forget that there was also a modern culture. Traveling to Iraq in June 2003 was a return home of sorts for Shabout. Born in Scotland to an Iraqi father and Palestinian mother, she returned with her parents to Iraq when she was 6. After graduating from high school in Baghdad, she came to the United States. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Texas at Arlington and then studied for her master's at the Architecture Association School of Art in London. Shabout said that a comprehensive history of modern art in Iraq hasn't yet been written and there are few comprehensive catalogs of the museum's works, making the loss of the art and documents a disaster. Azzawi predicts that much of the Iraq's modern art history will simply disappear into private collections.
"It's criminal. It's unbelievable," he said. Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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