THE LOOTING of artifacts and cultural objects in times of war and violent political upheaval continues to arouse international concern in the twenty-first century just as it did in the twentieth. The plunder of archaeological sites in Egypt during the recent revolution (after they were abruptly abandoned by teams of archaeologists who were understandably concerned about their personal safety) is only the latest example. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, war was followed by the wholesale looting of museums and other sites, and it was not long before plundered objects began to find their way into collections in the West.
What can be done about the trade in looted art? How has society dealt with it in the past and how should it deal with it now? The history of this practice goes back far indeed, beginning perhaps with Jason and the Argonauts looting the Golden Fleece; and it continued with the Romans’ habit of looting art from conquered cities in order to parade it through the streets of Rome in the ceremonial procession of the Roman triumph before putting it on display in the Forum.
Cultural looting on a grand scale, with the stolen objects appropriated for public display in the conqueror’s capital, was in the ancient world an act of state designed to advertise the supremacy of the victor and underline the humiliation of the defeated. Here, these displays said, was a great power whose generals could best rich and well-resourced rival powers; they advertised both to the victorious state’s own citizens the rewards that could be gained from military conquest and to the rest of the world the inadvisability of coming into conflict with a state of such power and magnificence.