Siesta, 1950. Jawad Salim.

Iraq’s artistic heritage: The struggle against looting, forgery, and lost legacies

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In the heart of Baghdad’s modern art museum, a sombrely hued painting titled “Death to Colonialism” by the trailblazing Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan al-Said holds a special place. This relic, birthed in the 1970s amidst Iraq’s modern art renaissance, miraculously endured the turmoil following the 2003 US-led invasion, a time when the museum’s collection of 8,000 artworks was ransacked by looters.

“Shakir Hassan al-Said’s work carries an extraordinary weight in both the realm of Iraqi modern art and Middle Eastern art overall,” attests Tamara Chalabi, the co-founder and leader of the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Art. Pieces by Said, a ground-breaking figure who co-founded the influential Baghdad Modern Art Group alongside the acclaimed artist Jewad Salim, can command staggering prices upwards of $100,000 at auctions.

The forgers and traffickers, both within Iraq and beyond, seem to harbor a particular affinity for the innovative works from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. This was a defining era in Iraqi art, and many of these masterpieces were among the thousands callously plundered from the country’s museums and private collections during the security lapse following the downfall of the dictator Saddam Hussein.

Untitled. 1970. al-Said. Ibrahimi Collection

“Iraqi art stands today as a formidable force of creative expression in the Arab world,” comments Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, the visionary founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, a distinguished museum nestled in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Artists like Kadhim Hayder and Dia Azzawi are particularly coveted. “Contemporary Iraqi artworks command prices into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” observes the Emirati art collector. “The promising auction results are drawing the attention of forgers… And their hunger for profit is pushing them to craft increasingly convincing fakes.”

This problem of authentication is not confined to Iraq; it manifests itself in places like Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria as well. However, it’s particularly severe in Iraq due to the complex mesh of issues: the exodus of artists, the relentless sequence of wars,” explains Qassemi. Chalabi adds, “Forgery is symptomatic of the pervasive corruption entrenched in Iraq’s system and, sadly, now often accepted as the norm by its people.”

One of the most substantial losses was endured by the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad, which was a sanctuary for some of Iraq’s most cherished 21st-century artworks. “We had a collection of 8,000 works before 2003,” laments Ali al-Doulaimi, the museum’s former director. “Now, we’re down to around 2,000.” However, he adds, in the years following the invasion, “We have managed to acquire new works, and some lost pieces have found their way back to us.”

Untitled. 1957. Jawad Saleem.

Both the museum and the Ministry of Culture are taking up arms in the fight to recover some of Iraq’s purloined treasures. They have supplied Interpol with details of about 100 vanished pieces, shared Doulaimi, who recently took his leave into retirement. However, discerning the actual scale of the loss is a daunting task, mired by the unreliable, hand-scribbled inventory left behind by the former administration.

In 2017, the renowned British auction house, Christie’s, made headlines when it decided to pull a painting by the Iraqi artist Faiq Hassan off the auction block due to a “dispute over its ownership”. As per an Iraqi official, the painting was likely secreted out of the country after it had been exhibited at an officer’s club affiliated with the Ministry of Defence. Regrettably, the painting never made its journey back to its homeland.

Over at the Akkad gallery in Baghdad, the proprietor Hayder Hachem Naji laments how the flood of fakes “tarnishes the reputation of Iraqi art”. “Sometimes, counterfeiters resort to repurposing an old painting – reusing the frame and canvas”, the 54-year-old gallery owner shares.

He recounts a recent episode where he was approached to exhibit a painting purportedly by Hafidh al-Droubi, an artist known for his Cubist influences. The hopeful owner had visions of selling the piece for a tidy sum of $40,000. However, Naji respectfully declined the offer. “In all honesty, it was a superbly crafted counterfeit,” he admitted.

Khalil Jalil, AFP