'Pit bull' lawyer and former marine hunts down world's stolen treasures

Assistant Manhattan district attorney Matthew Bogdanos has recovered antiquities from looters, museums, auction houses and the homes of wealthy

US Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, lead investigator in finding looted treasures taken from the Baghdad Archeological Museum, directs a presentation to the press in Baghdad, 16 May 2003. Investigators have recovered 951 artifacts and determined many items had been stored for their security in pre-war hidding sites. One of the oldest known bronze relief bowls, an Assiryan pottery jar from the sixth millenium B.C., one of the earliest known Sumerian free-standing statue and a carved rock from the Babilonic period were pesented to the press.    AFP PHOTO/Behrouz MEHRI / AFP PHOTO / BEHROUZ MEHRI
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The ancient marble sculpture had made its way from Lebanon to New York, via a well-trodden path of dealers and collectors.

And there it might have remained if it were not for a tenacious Manhattan prosecutor who spotted it in an old copy of House & Garden magazine dating from 1998 which featured homes built to show off art collections.

The caption described how the master bathroom was decorated with a “breathtakingly beautiful” marble torso.

A search warrant issued last month describes it in different terms: stolen property, a treasure excavated from a Phoenician temple.

It is now in the possession of prosecutors in New York awaiting repatriation to Lebanon.

It marks another success for Matthew Bogdanos, a real-life monuments man who spotted the photograph. His work as assistant Manhattan district attorney draws on experience gained in the US Marine Corps Reserves when he led an operation to recover thousands of antiquities looted from the National Museum of Iraq in the aftermath of the American invasion.

Then, he would tell journalists that he always kept four things in his rucksack — his weapon, ammunition, water and a copy of the Iliad, Homer's epic account of the Trojan war.

It is an apt metaphor for a warrior trained in law and the classics who stands at the centre of efforts to thwart the global trade in stolen antiquities.

And it was a copy of the Iliad, given to him at the age of 12 by his mother, that set him on his chosen course.

"It was identification with the Bronze Age Greeks and their values that led me to take up boxing, to join the Marines, to become a prosecutor," Mr Bogdanos writes in his memoir, Thieves of Baghdad.

At the time, he was waiting tables at his parents’ diner in Manhattan, doing his homework in spare moments and eating leftover dinners.

He joined the Marines after school but was directed to attend college first so that he could become an officer.

He paid his way to a bachelor's degree in classics by learning how to count cards and then cleaning up at blackjack in the casinos of Atlantic City, before adding a master's degree and a law degree from Columbia University.

During his time at law school he interned for Harold Rothwax, a New York judge famous for his harsh tongue and matching sentences.

“From the moment I stepped in his courtroom, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Mr Bogdanos said in a 2003 interview.

He left the Marines after a decade in 1988, to join the Manhattan district attorney’s office. His stocky build and tenacity in prosecuting murderers and celebrities (including Puff Daddy) earned him the nickname “pit bull” in local newspapers.

He returned to the Marines after 9/11, first in Afghanistan and then Iraq, as part of a counter-terrorism unit, using forensic skills to trace banned weapons and track terrorist funding.

When he got wind of the damage done to the national museum in Baghdad he immediately offered to lead an investigation.

His senior officer told him not to worry if his inquiries led him to point the finger at US forces. “That pit bull thing you do in New York? You do that in Baghdad, and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.

Among the missing items were some of the world’s most important archaeological treasures. They included the sacred Vase of Warka, a 5,000-year-old carved alabaster stone vessel.

Mr Bogdanos instituted an amnesty, promising a cup of tea but no questions for anything returned. That worked with amateur looters who felt entitled to anything left behind by Saddam Hussein’s vicious regime, but he also put together raids to recover objects stolen by organised gangs.

The Vase of Warka was returned after two months by three young men who lifted it from the back of a red Toyota.

Reporters beat a path to his digs inside the museum as they looked for a story that illustrated the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq and its reconstruction.

They found a captivating character, as likely to quote Cicero as a Samurai warrior in blunt, New York tones.

Back in civilian life and the work continues. Manhattan’s museums, auction houses and collectors put it at the centre of the legal trade in antiquities, which also means it is frequently at the centre of the illegal trade.

Some of the artefacts were removed from their country of origin decades ago; others have entered the market more recently, as ISIL sold looted treasures to fill its coffers.

In the past three years, at least $150 million (Dh550m) of treasures have been recovered, of which $3m have been repatriated.

In recent weeks, Mr Bogdanos and his team have seized a plundered Persian artefact valued at $1.2m from a British dealer at an art fair, a Roman marble torso of Cupid from Christie’s days before it was to be auctioned, and taken possession of a 2,300-year-old bull’s head sculpture from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Often the current owner believes they have lawful possession, only to discover later that they have unwittingly bought stolen property.

The bull’s head, for example, was stolen from Lebanon during its civil war. It was excavated from the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon in 1967 but disappeared when storerooms in Byblos were looted in 1981.

It was Met museum staff who alerted authorities at the start of this year. It had been offered for display by its owner, who bought it from Lynda and William Bierewaltes, collectors in Colorado, who in turn purchased it in good faith for $1m in 1996. They bought it from a London dealer, Roger Symes, who was later unmasked as a key player in the illegal antiquities trade.

That trail led Mr Bogdanos to the 1998 special issue of House & Garden which included a photographic feature of the Bierewaltes' home. There, in the tranquillity of the designer bathroom, stood the marble statue of the calf bearer.

Both items are expected to be returned to Lebanon.