US-led authorities in Baghdad put on display one of the most exciting archaeological finds of the 20th century, the Treasure of Nimrud, on Thursday, anxious to dispel rumours that the treasure was missing.
The spectacular collection of the near 3,000-year-old jewellery was recovered unscathed from the vaults of Iraq's central bank last month, but rumours persisted the gold treasure had been sold off or stolen by looters.
In a carefully choreographed public relations exercise, the US-led authorities threw open the doors of the Iraqi National Museum for three brief hours to a select group of dignitaries and journalists, to prove that one of Iraq's most precious treasures had not been plundered in the post-war chaos.
The collection, which dates from the 8th century BC, had been kept under lock and key by Saddam Hussein's regime since its discovery in the late 1980s.
"That's where it's going back in one hour's time," said Pietro Cordone, an Italian envoy charged with overseeing Iraq's cultural activities, accompanying top US administrator Paul Bremer in the first opening since the end of the war.
The museum was heavily looted after the collapse of Saddam's regime in early April, with fears that thousands of priceless antiquities from the Assyrian and Babylonian periods had been lost.
Coalition officials said last month that the extent of looting at the museum had not been as widespread as previously feared.
Just 3,000 of some 170,000 items originally reported missing still remained unaccounted for. "Of 8,000 items of world-class value, we can now only not account for 47," a coalition spokesman said.
The Nimrud treasure was one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century, along with the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt, according to Beatrice Andre Salvini, curator of Oriental antiquities at Paris' Louvre museum.
The priceless collection of 650 bracelets, necklaces, royal tiaras and semi-precious stones, was recovered from the bank vaults a month ago after they were drained of wartime flooding from the Tigris River.
A spokesman said that it had been a painstaking process as the vault had "not been opened since the late 1980s." The keys and combinations had been recovered from Iraqi officials before the door was opened on the find.
"Some water and sewage got in but they found that the Treasure of Nimrud was very largely unscathed and that with a bit of cleaning and polishing there should be no long-term damage."
The first of the treasure was found by Italian archaeologists excavating the tombs of Assyrian queens and princes in 1988.
Cordone said he hoped the museum would be able to open to the general public in November. The building houses statues, bas-relief work and Assyrian frescoes dating from the reign of Salmanazar III in the 9th century BC, and Sargon II.