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Iraqi gallery pieces looted art heritage back together


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Well-wishers have returned more than 1,000 works of modern art looted from Baghdad's top gallery as curators continue the painstaking task of restoring what was once one of the Middle East's finest collections.

Some 6,870 works were stolen from the Iraqi Art Museum in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, which ousted Saddam Hussein but threw the capital open to a wave of lawlessness that all but destroyed the city's cultural life.

Now, however, friends of the museum have begun to track down and return hundreds of oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and sculptures representing the work of some of the finest Iraqi artists of the past two centuries.

"We have managed to recover 1,130 pieces from people who bought these works in Amman and Baghdad, perhaps not knowing they were looted, and have now returned them," said museum director Huda al-Nuaimi.

The scenes in Baghdad after US forces drove off Saddam's security forces may have looked like a chaotic free-for-all, but the looting of the museum was carried out by professionals who knew what they were doing, she said.

"The paintings were stripped from their frames and folded in a delicate and careful way," Nuaimi told AFP, adding she suspected the gang must have had knowledge of the collection and the layout of the gallery.

Nevertheless, some of the works were damaged, and now curators are working with experts to restore stretched canvases.

"We've sent two of our staff to Italy for a course on how to restore works of art," she said.

Most of the stolen artworks seem to have ended up being sold privately, and they have begun to show up in collections around the region, where Iraqi officials can spot them and contact their owners.

The Qatari embassy in Jordan, for example, recently sent back five pieces by renowned Iraqi painter Faiq Hassan, the leading light in the "Pioneers Group" whose naturalistic style dominated Baghdad art in the 1950s.

The paintings had been hung in the Amman embassy after being bought in good faith, but have now come back to their rightful home.

But while Hassan's work is among the best known, Nuami's personal pride is directed towards the magnificent cityscapes painted by her father Sadiq Ahmed, an army officer born in the northern city of Mosul in 1915.

"During breaks in his service, my father was very keen on sketching details of the towns where he was posted. Later, he transferred the details to grander canvases," she said.

The origins of the collection date back to 1909, but in 1980 it was transferred to a villa on the banks of the Tigris which was once owned by Abdel Rahman al-Naqib, the first Iraqi prime minister under a British mandate in the 1920s.

In the 1990s under Saddam Hussein's regime it was taken to the new Iraqi Art Museum in central Baghdad, a hub the city's cultural scene now struggling to re-establish itself against a background of violence and lack of funds.

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AFP 301234 GMT 09 06

COPYRIGHT 2006 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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