Gripping accounts of frenzied war-time looting, secreted treasures, international intrigue and behind-the-scenes heroics involved in the search and return of antiquities back to the cradle of civilization roll off the tongue in the rapid-fire staccato of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) of Senior Special Agent (SSA) James E. McAndrew of the HSI New York Special Agent in Charge Office.
McAndrew's case files are filled with facts and photos of antiquities that ICE has returned to Iraq. These include daggers, coins, jewelry, clay cuneiform tablets, foundation cones and a rifle with an image of Saddam Hussein. Although McAndrew has investigated and retrieved countess antiquities over the years, he has total recall of each, including one of Iraq's most beloved objects -- a 4,400-year-old statue of a Sumerian king, the Statue of Entemena.
SAFE Beacon Award recipient.
McAndrew's expertise in international art and antiquity investigations and international trade law is well known and respected; so much so that he, along with three other experts in the field-an attorney, a federal prosecutor and a retired FBI agent-will be receiving a 2010 SAFE Beacon Award on October 29, 2010 in New York. According to the SAFE Beacon "the four exceptional men" are "unsung heroes in the battle to save our history." They are being recognized for "outstanding achievement in raising public awareness about our endangered cultural heritage." After the ceremony the awardees will participate in a panel discussion and share their insights.
McAndrew has a lot to share. His intense pursuit of priceless antiquities began prior the looting of the Iraq National Museum in 2003 when American troops entered Iraq, signaling the fall of Sadaam Hussein's regime. The massive plundering of thousands of priceless treasures that chronicle 7,000 years of civilization in Mesopotamia set the world ablaze with indignation. McAndrew describes the climate of the times saying, "It was as if the Berlin Wall were coming down. There was elation; also greed." At the end of the rampant ransacking, more than 17,000 objects went missing."
McAndrew makes connections.
Two years before this event, working for an ICE legacy agency, the U.S. Customs Service, McAndrew brought to successful conclusion, an investigation of New York ancient art dealer, Hicham Aboutaan, who had smuggled a ceremonial drinking vessel into the U.S.
Little did McAndrew know that Aboutaan would lead him to the retrieval of one of the most prized historical and cultural heirlooms of Iraq--the Statue of Entemena. The 300-pound statue, which is headless, is carved from black diorite and is 30 inches tall.
Archeologists believe conquerors in ancient times stole it and removed its head.
"Entemena was listed as the fourth most important piece that was stolen from the Baghdad museum," said McAndrew. "It has great historical significance with cuneiform writing that tells the king's biography."
McAndrew's account of the return of Entemena is a spy thriller that begs to be told. The beginning starts to unfold in 2005, which was when Aboutaan's attorney contacted McAndrew. Aboutaan told McAndrew how the statue had been stolen, where it was hidden and, most importantly, who to contact to bring this treasure back to its rightful owners.
Aboutaan connected McAndrew with an Iraqi national who had fled his home country and was living in Europe. Having no love for the brutal regime of Hussein, a ruler he held responsible for destroying his livelihood and reportedly killing members of his family, the informant was more than willing to help an American federal agent recover Entemena.
An insider reveals Entemena's past and present.
With Aboutaan and a skilled DHS interpreter present, McAndrew held a number of lengthy conversations with the informant. The informant revealed that during the height of the Baghdad museum looting, two or three young Iraqis drove a pick-up truck to the museum and stopped at the bottom of the museum's immense staircase. They tied one end of a long rope to the truck. They entered the museum and lassoed the other end of the rope around Entemena. They took off in the truck, dragging the statue behind them. Entemena bounced down the solid marble staircase breaking each stair, leaving small chunks of marble and dust behind. (Entemena survived the rigorous journey but one of the statue's hands was broken). The Iraqi informant said that Entemena was hidden on a farm in Syria.
The investigation intensifies.
McAndrew took the investigation to a higher level of intensity. The Iraqi informant was willing to become an operative and travel to Syria to rescue Entemena. With the political climate in the Middle East, the plot was risky and dangerous. "It was practically impossible," said McAndrew. This fact did not deter either McAndrew or the operative, who would be risking his life. McAndrew set up the covert operation and monitored the operative's travel.
The first part of the plan succeeded. The operative crossed the border into Syria. He had Entemena loaded into a van with blacked out windows. While parked on a roadside in Syria with the priceless gem stowed in the back of the van, the operative "was nervous and scared, surrounded on all sides," said McAndrew. Now, the operative had to cross the border into Lebanon for the safe delivery of Entemena.
"The whole world is looking for this statue, and here it is sitting in a darkened van in the middle of Syria while I was a world away in my cubicle in New York trying to make this happen without a hitch," said McAndrew.
Negotiating with officials during dangerous times. McAndrew mustered all of his diplomatic skill. "I had to get the government to trust me," he said. McAndrew conducted intense negotiations with U.S. Embassy officials in Lebanon to clear the operation. "This was no easy task. The Middle East was in a state of war. The region was targeted daily with car bombings and U.S. soldiers were being killed."
McAndrew said luck was on his side when an archeologist he described as "exceedingly passionate about priceless antiquities" was given the phone. "She talked and talked and talked," said McAndrew. "We spoke for hours." Finally, the embassy officials agreed to the plan.
McAndrew gave the operative the green light to cross the Syrian border into Lebanon.
In Lebanon, the operative parked the van at a preordained secluded spot in Beirut. The situation was tense. U.S. marksmen, snipers, were staked out and ready to shoot, lest the operative make a false move. "It was the height of the Gulf War. No one knew who to trust," said McAndrew. "Although U.S. Embassy officials in Lebanon trusted me enough to go this far, they could not be one hundred percent certain that I was telling the truth and that this was not a setup. For all they knew, the Iraqi operative could have been a suicide bomber."
McAndrew instructed the operative to, "Open the door slowly. Get out of the van. Put your hands in the air." When officials saw Entemena for themselves, deemed the operative trustworthy and the area safe, joy supplanted fear. "The archeologist wept. The Iraqi embraced everyone," said McAndrew.
ICE officially returns Entemena to Iraq.
On September 7, 2010 at the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad, ICE officially returned to Iraq the Statue of Entemena, along with 542 other Iraqi artifacts, the bulk of which McAndrew was responsible for successfully investigating and repatriating. These included 5,000-year-old cylindrical seals used by Sumerians to seal written documents, a pair of gold earrings from the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and a chrome-plated AK-47 with a pearl handle that bears the image of Saddam Hussein.
McAndrew's further accounts.
McAndrew may recount the story of the Statue of Entemena at the SAFE Beacon Awards ceremony. Then again, he may talk about the 4,000-year-old clay tablets that had been stored in the World Trade Center's basement, which were miraculously recovered and restored after 9/11. He may talk about the treasure trove found in the burial tombs of King Ashur's wives in Nimrod. He may talk about the DHS national training program he implemented, titled, "Fighting Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property at U.S. Ports of Entry." Like the passionate archeologist in Lebanon, McAndrew's life's work spills over in loquacious enthusiasm. Whatever he chooses to talk about, his audience, no doubt, will be captivated.