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Iraq’s missing modern art

Baghdad’s art galleries are struggling to restore their priceless collections.

There was an intriguing piece in the New York Times this week on the sorry state of Baghdad's National Museum of Modern Art. Despite once housing some of the Arab world's most important works, the museum has been left to atrophy since the fall of Saddam. Its paintings, looted during the collapse of the Ba'ath regime in 2003, are now trading on the black market.

According to recent estimates, about 1,700 of the 7,000 works removed from the museum have been reclaimed. Still missing are paintings by the influential Iraqi artists Madiha Omar and Saud al-Attar, as well as a collection of valuable European works, among them paintings by Pablo Picasso.

For some years now, a coterie of artists and curators has been trying to buy back looted pieces, pressing both the Coalition Provisional Authority and US authorities for help in recovering lost art. But the official position of the occupying powers has been to insist on the voluntary return of goods. Only recently did the new Iraqi government authorise the repossession by force of works removed from the Museum of Modern Art.

In contrast, Iraq's National Museum, which stores ancient treasures from the Sumerian and Babylonian eras, has received heavy investment, including a $14m grant announced in autumn 2008 by Laura Bush. Though still waiting for a heating and cooling system, the national museum was deemed ready for a high-profile reopening ceremony last February, hosted by Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki.

So why is the Iraqi administration focusing its resources in this way? Its bias against modern art almost certainly stems from political motives. Most prominent Iraqi artists of the past 20 years have enjoyed the patronage of figures tied to Saddam Hussein's regime -- indeed, the modern art museum was formerly known as the Saddam Centre for the Arts -- and there are some fears that returning works will be vandalised.

In addition, the Islamic political parties that have emerged in the postwar vacuum -- al-Maliki's Dawa Party among them -- have shown scant regard for modern art, in part for fear that these works could be viewed as impious. In a nation riven by so many religious and political divisions, the authorities have had to look to ancient history, rather than modern culture, for symbols of national unity.

So, for the time being, Salam Atta Sabri, director of the Museum of Modern Art, is exhibiting what he can. Of the five storeys that the museum once occupied, three galleries are now open to the public. The rest has become a warren of offices and cubicles belonging to the ministry of culture.

"Hopefully someone is going to help us from international museums [sic]," Sabri told a reporter from the New York Times, "to get the grant for restoration first, and [then] for a better place."