Cultural heritage issues spark up again over the strange case of the attempted sale of Saddam Hussein’s bronze bottom

This was a strange cultural heritage case for 2011 that concerned the Saddam Hussein monument from central Baghdad that was famously brought down in 2003.

Nigel Ely, a former SAS soldier had been working with a TV crew covering events in Baghdad in 2003 and was present covering the fall of Baghdad.

Ely had wanted to keep a piece of the statue as a piece of historical memorabilia and asked marines who had cordoned off the area if he could take a piece of the monument. They agreed and with the help of a marine, a crow bar and sledge hammer was used to cut out a 2 ft square chunk of the dictator’s back side.

Mr Ely managed to get the item past the Kuwaiti army, but was charged £385 to fly the chunk back to the UK.

Mr Ely’s plan was to sell the piece at auction to raise money for charity.

The piece was entered into auction in Derby in October 2011, consigned to Hanson’s auctioneers of Etwall Derbyshire.

The piece failed to meet its £250,000 reserve price and was withdrawn.

The matter took a serious turn when the Iraqi embassy learned that this item was in an auction sale. A complaint had been made from the Iraqi government through the Iraqi embassy to the Met police.

The Iraqi authorities believe the item is part of their cultural heritage and have requested its return.

This led to Mr Ely being questioned by Derbyshire police.

As the ownership was disputed, the police used the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to prevent Mr Ely from altering or disposing of the item. If Mr Ely breaches the notice, he will be committing a criminal offence.

Then in January this year, Mr Thorpe, director of Trebletap (a firm founded by Ely. This company turns war memorabilia into art works) was arrested on suspicion of illegally keeping the item.

He was questioned on suspicion of breaching Section 8 of the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order 2003. This Order requires anyone possessing Iraqi cultural property to hand it over to the police.

Mr Thorpe therefore faced arrest and questioning under suspicion of breaching UN sanctions.

This has led to the Culture Department issuing a statement. This statement is recorded in the Antiques Trade Gazette issue 2031, dated 10th March 2012.

It says as follows:

“Statutory Instrument 2003 No.1519 United Nations The Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 restricts the trade in such cultural goods because UN sanctions are still in force “as a continuation of efforts contributing to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq.” says the Ministry.

“Please note it is your responsibility to ensure that your activities do not breach these sanctions,” it advises the industry through the British Art Market Federation.

“If you wish to deal in Iraqi cultural property you are advised to look at the UKTI, BIS and HM Treasury websites. If there is any uncertainty you are advised to seek independent legal advice to ensure you do not breach sanctions.

It is a criminal offence to breach these sanctions and carries a penalty of up to seven years imprisonment and/or a fine.” […]

The Antiques Trade Gazette further states:

“Auctioneers and dealers are also regulated by the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, which makes it an offence for any person to dishonestly deal in a cultural object that is tainted (within the meaning of the 2003 Act), knowing or believing that the object is tainted. The offence set out in the Act complements the UK’s obligations under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which the UK ratified in 2002.”

The Government’s interest in this case perhaps shows its increasing interest in cultural heritage matters which may affect many dealers and sellers. There is nothing to suggest that this interest will lessen.

Jessica Franses