Jeweled History: A Creative Writing Series - The Golden Bowl, The Artifacts (Chapter 2)

Gold & Lapis Bowl looted from the National Museum of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

Chapter 2:  The Artifacts

Leave it to Adam to actually be on time. 

“Damn military precision,” EJ groaned as her phone vibrated on the nightstand.  “What do you want?”

“Get your sorry ass out of bed, Red.  I’m downstairs waiting on you and I’m starving,” Adam responded.  “Can’t you be on time for once?”

“I’m always on time except when you and jet lag are involved,” EJ quipped.

“Whatever.  How long do you need?"

“Give me 30 minutes to shower and throw some clothes on,” EJ responded.

“You know you’re gonna be on television, right?  Maybe put a little effort into it,” he laughed.

“Thirty minutes IS effort,” EJ snapped.

“Ok, ok.  I’ll grab a coffee from the lobby bar and see you in thirty."

EJ rolled out of bed still half asleep.  Adam’s cheeriness doing nothing to prevent the dread from pooling in her stomach.  You would think that a reporter would be accustomed to standing in front of the camera.  It wasn’t the camera – or even the speaking to an auditorium full of people – that made EJ nervous.  It was the worry that some member of the Taliban or some other mercenary could be in the crowd waiting to secret her off to some remote location to collect the price on her head.  It was the worry that she would be the next reporter killed for having been in country and speaking out against the atrocities she saw.

“I’m in Dubai,” EJ reminded herself aloud.  “That’s the only way that I would have agreed to come do a public repatriation of the seals.”

It had really been a chance encounter just over sixteen months ago that had gotten EJ this far.  As a journalist with an art history minor, EJ had always been interested in how art, jewelry, artifacts and the like moved across borders.  And, after years of near-misses in the field being embedded with the U.S. Military, she was looking for something different to report on that still had that thrill of the chase she so enjoyed.  And it had just so happened that on her last embedded assignment, she had the opportunity to interview and shadow an investigator with the Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities division of the United States Homeland Security Investigations Department, Carl Rickman.

It had really started off as a rather banal assignment from EJ’s perspective.  Visit the National Museum of Iraq with Rickman; interview the Museum Director about some of the pieces which were still missing from the April 10, 2003 looting that took place during Operation Desert Storm when U.S. Forces were advancing on Baghdad.  In 2003, the museum had been looted for approximately 36 hours  straight after museum staff had vacated the premises 24-hours earlier.  During that time, it has been estimated that more 15,000 antiquities were stolen – only a fraction of which have been returned.  EJ learned from the Museum Director and Rickman that there was (and still is) a massive black market for stolen antiquities throughout the globe.  Rickman had told EJ he suspected that there were some collectors with a ‘shopping list’ of sorts who had paid for specific items prior to the looting.  Items that included the Mask of Warka, also known as the Sumerian Mona Lisa, which had been recovered in September of 2003 at a farm near Baghdad before it could be moved out of the Country. 

During the interview, the Rickman had made the statement that the smaller, easier to conceal items were proving the most difficult to locate in the antiquities market place.  The Museum Director confirmed, adding that he and other museum staff had also seen a rise in antiquity forgeries in recent years which took time away from hunting for the looted treasures.  When EJ had asked for further clarification, he had explained that well-known artifacts are often, and ironically, the most forged pieces in the world. 

“Think of just a museum gift shop.  How many reproductions of arts of work do you see there?”  He had said and then went on to explain that when a well-done forgery makes it onto the black market and is “recovered” by authorities; it is brought to an expert for identification and authentication.  This process takes time if the forgery is of exceptional quality thereby taking staff time away from searching for the authentic artifact.  At the time, it had really been an eye-opening revelation for EJ.  Later, after the interview was over, she had spoken with Rickman about a hypothesis that had been developing in her head throughout the interview.

“Do you suppose the antiquities sellers realize this and have purposefully been flooding the market with knock-offs in an attempt to buy more time for them to move the authentic pieces,” she had asked.

"I’ve always found antiquities sellers to be more of an opportunistic, money-driven sort.  But, I suppose it they were ‘shopping’ for a specific client or group of items then planning ahead in that way could prove useful however it may also decrease the price your item demands,” Rickman had said at the time.  “It’s an interesting idea though.”

Together, she and Rickman had chased down lead after lead to no avail.  EJ was becoming more and more frustrated.  She had been hoping to close out her story with a happy ending of sorts but nothing seemed to be going their way.  Rickman kept telling her that the likelihood of them successfully finding one of the stolen artifacts in the time they had together was slim.

“It’s a years and years long process,” he would say. 

Still, as EJ followed Rickman on his investigation into the still missing artifacts over the next several weeks both in Iraq and Washington D.C., she couldn’t seem to get the notion of purposefully flooding the market with fakes out of her mind.  If these black market antiquities dealers were really shopping for a specific client; wouldn’t they have asked for payment or, at the very least, a deposit up front thereby ensuring the contract price regardless of the fakes in the market?  What if there was a way to track the fakes to the original seller and find the originals?

EJ couldn’t reminisce any more.  The beating on her hotel room door just would not subside.  She stormed to the door and threw it open.  Before she could mutter a single snarky remark, Adam thrust a cup of spiced hot cider in her hand.”

“Drink it before you rip my head off,” he smiled.

Never a coffee drinker, EJ’s early morning drink of choice was spice hot cider with an extra sugar cube or a fully caffeinated soda.  And Adam had remembered.  After she drained half of the cup, EJ looked up to see Adam smiling at her with a latte of his own.  Dressed in a suit one shade darker and slightly less wrinkled than the one he’d worn the day before.

“Ok, fine.  Has it really been more than thirty minutes,” she asked.

“Only by another fifteen,” he chuckled.  “Come on, let’s get you fed.  But maybe put some clothes on first though.”

EJ stood up and realized she hadn’t even made it out of the robe she’d put on when she got out of the shower this morning.

“Well, at least I got my make-up and hair done,” she replied as she walked back into the bedroom to search her single suitcase for something appropriate to wear.

Less than ten minutes later, she was walking out of the bedroom dressed in a pair of sharply creased tan pants, a black linen shirt with the sleeves rolled up over a white tank, black belt and loafers and carrying a matching, patterned scarf.  A long gold necklace and antique Victorian drop earrings completed the look.  She grabbed her messenger bag and looped the scarf around the strap before checking the safety of its contents.

“I take it all back, Red,” Adam whistled.  “You could give those supermodels a run for their money.”

“Come on,” EJ chuckled.  “Let’s get this over with.  But you’re still obligated to feed me first.”

“Naturally,” Adam responded as he opened the door with a flourish.  “Let’s get you fed before the hangry red monster appears.”

Less than forty minutes later, they were seated at a little local cafĂ© with a plate full of baith tamat, khameer bread, date syrup and an assortment of cheese.  EJ couldn’t help but smile as she took in the delicious smell of the baith tamat.  Its combination of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, herbs and saffron causing her stomach to rumble loudly enough that Adam smirked.

“Guess I was hungrier than I thought I was,” EJ quipped.

“Knowing you, you probably skipped dinner last night and then got yourself worked up about this whole shindig to the point where you didn’t really feel like eating,” Adam mused.

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” EJ responded as she shoveled a fork full of the eggs into her mouth and dripped the date syrup on the khameer.

“It’d be hard either way with a mouth full of food,” Adam teased.  “Can we address the elephant in the room now that you have some food in you?  You’re not normally so averse to being on time.  So, you might as well go ahead and spill what it is about the repatriation of these artifacts that has you so worked up and why you refused to do it at the Iraqi Museum.”

EJ sighed.  It was obvious by the look on Adam’s face that he was not going to let this go.  She hadn’t told anyone about the death threats or the feelings of being followed.  Or even the price on her head.  She taken her own safety countermeasures – varied routes to work; putting garbage out the morning of trash day instead of the night before; asked the station security guard to walk her to her car after dark; changed out of her on-air clothes before leaving; increased her visits to the shooting range; even rented a different type of car to drive on occasion and stayed in a hotel for a few days here and there when she was feeling particularly nervous.  Anything and everything to vary her routine and draw less attention to herself.  She’d even thought about cutting and dying her hair but the Station Manager had quickly put the kibosh on that, “Your look is what distinguishes you from the hundreds of other TV personalities out there.  If you dyed your red curls brown then how will people know they’re watching EJ Anne on Channel 5,” she’d said.  Of course, EJ hadn’t explained the real reason why to her either.  If she had, the station would have hired protection and instituted the advanced safety protocols they had in place.  And, even more to the point, EJ didn’t want to seem like she couldn’t take care of herself.  Her hyper-independence just would not allow her to ask for help.

“So,” Adam prodded.

“Fine,” EJ replied as she put her fork down, “But you have to promise not to say anything until the end.”

“Very well, I promise” Adam said.  “Out with it then.”

“You know all about the piece I did with Special Agent Carl Rickman from the CPAA – the Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities division of the United Stated Homeland Security Investigations Department,” EJ clarified. 

Adam said nothing but shook his head in the affirmative.

“Well, during that investigative piece I may have stepped on a few toes – unintentionally, of course,” EJ added quickly.  “When we were attempting to track down some of the 4,000 pieces still missing from the National Museum of Iraq; I couldn’t get the idea of a black market antiquities seller purposefully flooding the market with fakes in order to eat up the time of investigative and authentication resources thereby allowing the stealers, dealers and sellers more time to move the real artifacts across borders and into the hands of their buyers.  If these black market antiquities dealers were shopping for a specific client; price would have been negotiated and agreed upon prior to handing the piece over and maybe even prior to the looting itself.  At least those were my thoughts.  So, I started wondering about the fakes that were seemingly flooding the market according to Rickman and the Museum Director.  What if the fakes were purposefully commissioned and there was a way to track them back to the original dealer and find the authentic missing artifacts?”

Adam sat in silence, eyes wide.  He could tell as EJ recounted her thought process that not only was she was on to something but that she was carefully trying to prep him for the bomb she was about to drop.

“I mean some of these fakes,” she continued excitedly, “were incredible!  The experts were eating up a lot of time trying to determine their authenticity or not.  That kind of artistic expertise combined with the ability – and access to – materials and tools that could cause these authenticators and investigators to need multiple tests, resources and time to determine if the item was truly authentic or not was impressive in and of itself.”

EJ took a deep breath and looked at Adam.  He was listening intently, but silently as she’d asked.  However, looking in his eyes, she could tell that he had already made the logical jump to where she was going in his head.  His face said it all.  She knew she better wrap it up quick because he was bursting with questions.  More like concern and he needed to get them out.

“Then the authenticators and museum experts began to see a pattern,” she hurriedly continued.  “Certain fakes seemed to come across their desks with more frequency and under further investigation; more ‘tells’ seemed to pop out.  When you’re only looking at one or two fakes of the same item months or even years apart; you miss those minute details that just don’t seem to fit.  Your brain only sees them as an anomaly – not as a trademark so to speak.  But, when you’re seeing that same anomaly time and time again within the same context then the pattern emerges.  What they learned was that certain fakes were consistently made by the same artisan.  Artisan A consistently produced reproduction cuneiform tablets; Artisan B was responsible for the vast majority of high quality papyrus fakes and so forth.  We still didn’t know the names of the artisans but they were able to identify more than a dozen different artisans who had specific specialties within the antiquities black market AND that there were some similarities between the materials that they used to create their reproductions.”

Adam took a deep breath before looking at EJ dead in the eye and stating, “I promised not to ask questions until you were done so you’d better get to it.”

“What all this new information did tell us was that my hypothesis was right.  There did appear to be an organized effort to flood the market with high quality fakes of the looted artifacts.  What we didn’t know was the who, where or why.  So I began snooping as I do,” EJ flashed a smile, noting that Adam did not return her amused look before continuing.  “I began reaching out to the sources that I had cultivated in-country to see if I could get pointed in the right direction.  I made it sound like I was looking to do a clandestine interview with some amazing art forger.  I played to their ego.  One of my contacts was able to put me in contact with a forger who was new to the game.  But, he had incredible talent.  Honestly, he really could have been a well-respected artist in his own right had he not gone over to the Dark Side.  And, as it turned out, he was located in New York.  I was able to arrange a meeting with him, in public, to get the logistics of the interview squared away.  I promised to blur his face and voice for air and he got paid for his time.  Long story short, as the interview went on and he got more comfortable; he started bragging about one of his ‘big jobs’ to create hundreds of identical reproductions of four cylinder seals from the Iraq Museum.  I knew I’d found the maker of the dozens of seals which had already come across Rickman and the museum experts’ desks.  So I leaned into his story and his ego.  By the time we wrapped the interview, he’d confirmed that there was a workshop of artisans who were responsible for nearly 80-percent of the forgeries on the black market at that time.  He’d even disclosed a general location for this underground workshop without even realizing it.  And I’d got it all on tape!”

EJ’s excitement was palatable.  Even Adam couldn’t deny that what she was telling him was an impressive bit of investigative journalism.  It was hard not to be proud of her.  And worried.  To him, she was still that gangly teenager who didn’t think about the consequences before she leapt.

“But, Hell, it was an impressive investigation.  Period,” he thought to himself.  “And dangerous.”

“Naturally, my cameraman, Luke, and I had to confirm the suspected location before presenting the information to Rickman.  My goal was to ensure that he had all the information he needed to move on the workshop.  Once we’d done that then I could make sure and negotiate a position for Luke and I to be embedded when he did.  It really was a way to close the loop on the original story,” EJ justified.  “So Luke and I waited until we were sure the shop was empty before we snuck in.  Once inside, we were able to get some great footage of the workshop interior; pieces that were in-progress; even a few pieces that I suspect were authentic but being used for reference until a sufficient number of fakes had been created and they were moved to their final destination.  That’s when I saw the seals.”

Protectively, EJ’s hand went to her bag.  She patted the bag and looked at Adam.

“So you grabbed them and left,” Adam finished the story for her.  EJ nodded.

“I wanted to have something tangible for the investigators and authenticators to look at,” she sighed.  "So it's more than just a single artifact that I'm returning to its people.  It's four."

Four Cylinder Seals that were looted from the National Museum of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

“Alright, but I’m waiting for the part where you tell me why you didn’t want to have this little shindig at the National Museum,” Adam prodded.

“After the seals were authenticated, Rickman agreed to let Luke and I come with and film the seizure and arrests.  What we didn’t realize until afterwards when Carl was following up on some of the other leads that the warehouse produced was that the Taliban had participated and, in some instances, encouraged the looting and sale of these priceless artifacts to fund their regime.  To make matters worse, these artisans had been hired – unbeknownst to them – by Taliban representatives to create these forgeries and flood the market to make the authentic pieces harder to locate,” EJ looked at Adam, not wanting to go on.

“And you all just shut down their entire money-making operation,” he said.

“Yes.  Not only were they making money from the sale of the authentic artifacts but also from the sale of the forgeries - it was bankrolling a huge chunk of their operations.  They had set the workshop up in New York thinking it would have been easier and less risky to get the fakes into buyers’ hands if they were produced there rather than trying to smuggle the forgeries into the States,” EJ responded.  “The story aired with footage from the investigation; the interviews with the National Museum Director and Rickman as well as the arrests in New York.  Regular update stories were provided by the CPAA and its artifact repatriation efforts as more and more arrests throughout the country happened.  It was really a domino effect.  And, in D.C., I was able to be right in the heart of it.  Rickman would call me anytime a new artifact was returned and I got to be front row in the press box at the event.  Then it wasn’t long before someone at DHS reached out to me to let me know that they had credible HUMINT that the Taliban had put a price on my head as payback for the damage done to one of their more lucrative money-making ventures.”

“Did DHS say where this human intelligence had been gathered from,” Adam asked.  “Did they tell you why they believed it to be credible?”

EJ shook her head in the negative and Adam sighed, “Why didn’t you call me before all this?  I could have arranged for security or even done some of my own digging.”

“I didn’t want to worry you.  DHS and Rickman have assured me that they have been working closely with the State Department to mitigate any potential threats to my safety,” EJ said.  “But, that’s why I didn’t want to hand the seals off at the National Museum and why the Rickman and I are presenting them to the Museum Director here in Dubai on neutral ground at the Saruq Al Hadid Archeology Museum.  I would have preferred the American Consulate but the State Department, Iraqi government and the Dubai Police Force have assured me that nothing will happen.  The presentation is supposed to take place in the auditorium in order to control access and make me feel more comfortable.  So…that’s the story.”

Shoulders slumped and head down, EJ felt like a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders.  She was still nervous about the presentation and what could go wrong but finally breaking down and telling Adam had left her feeling slightly more at ease.

“Well that doesn’t give me much time, but I can make it work,” Adam replied as he pulled out his phone and starting shooting off one text after another at a furious pace.

“Make what work,” EJ asked.

“Protection,” he said simply.  “Arrange additional protection and security.  I have a few contacts at the Dubai Police Force who can ensure that my folks get added to the guest list.  Then I’ll feel more comfortable knowing that there are some people there we can both count on in the event that someone tries something stupid.  Then, I’ll get something set up for you in D.C. until I can determine the validity of this HUMINT that DHS mentioned.”

She couldn’t help but smile.  Even after all these years, Adam was still protecting her.  He’d taught her how to look after herself and to be situationally aware.  He’d even been the one to teach her how to use a gun, and how to use it well, but it was in his nature to protect those he cared about.  She’d seen that first hand so many years ago.

A few minutes later, Adam put his cell phone down and paid the tab.  “Let’s go,” he said, “and get you over to the Archeology Museum so I can see the set-up and coordinate with my guys and the Dubai Police.”


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