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.
In Byzantium, the Hippodrome was adorned with looted art, and during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 the city itself was in turn looted by the crusaders, with large amounts of cultural booty taken back to Venice to adorn the Basilica of St. Mark—most notably, of course, the four gilded horses of the Apocalypse which can be seen in the city today. During the Thirty Years’ War, Swedish troops looted book collections across Europe to stock the university library at Uppsala. In other examples, such as the sack of Magdeburg in 1631, when the army of the Catholic Holy Roman emperor massacred the inhabitants of the rebellious Protestant town, wanton destruction as well as the theft of riches was carried out by individual soldiers for their own personal enrichment. Magdeburg, in fact, caused widespread shock and dismay across Europe; while early modern lawyers such as Grotius conceded that, provided a war was being fought for a just cause, any property seized from the enemy became the property of the individual or state that took it, they also urged moderation and insisted that soldiers needed the express permission of their commanding officer before engaging in looting of any kind.
Private looting indeed has always gone on side by side with state-sponsored spoliation, but it has also aroused more disapproval. Most notorious of all was Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman court. He obtained permission from the sultan to take away old pieces of stone from the Parthenon in Athens, then under Turkish rule, which he and his team did with such enthusiasm—and carelessness, breaking a number of the sculptures in the process—that several shiploads returned with them to Britain, where he intended to use them to decorate his home.
These are only the best known of a vast series of acquisitions of ancient archaeological remains in the nineteenth century, many of which were taken from territory occupied by the Ottoman Empire by purchase or agreement with the Ottoman authorities, often achieved through the use of bribery. Even at the time, Elgin’s action ran into widespread criticism, in England as well as from the nascent Greek independence movement—supported by Lord Byron with some of his most biting satirical verses. Defenders of such acquisitions argued above all that they would not be safe if they remained in situ, since local people were already quarrying many of these sites for building materials; critics argued that the remains were far more seriously damaged by those who took them to pieces in order to carry off the most valuable parts.
ELGIN’S ACTIONS reflected his belief that educated Englishmen were the true heirs of classical civilization, whose legacy permeated the minds of educated elites across Europe. This influence was nowhere greater than in revolutionary France, where Napoleon’s victorious armies began concluding a series of treaties with conquered states across Europe, notably the Treaty of Tolentino, signed by the pope in 1797, that allowed them to appropriate artworks to stock the Louvre Museum, founded in 1793. The loot carried off to Paris from all over Italy included the four horses of the Apocalypse from St. Mark’s in Venice and scores of ancient Greek statues, which entered the city in a Roman-style triumphal procession, accompanied by banners that read: “Greece relinquished them, Rome lost them, their fate has changed twice, it will never change again.” They were joined by Renaissance paintings, live camels and lions, and the entire papal archive. All this underlined the claim of Paris to be the new Rome. Only the French, so the proclamation went, were civilized enough to appreciate such treasures.
During the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, large quantities of antiquities were collected by a team of 167 scientists, scholars and artists shipped over to Africa by Napoleon. When he was defeated, the British claimed the collection—including the famous Rosetta stone—as booty, validated by the Treaty of Alexandria, and put it in the British Museum, where it remains. No one seems to have objected.
Spoils (or the decision as to what to do with them) still went to the winner, and after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the Prussians took back the artworks and cultural objects stolen from them by force. However, at this point, attitudes were already beginning to change. The Duke of Wellington, commander of the allied armies, resisting pleas from Britain’s prince regent to purchase some of the finer pieces for the royal collection, decided to arrange for the rest to be returned to the “countries from which,” he wrote, “contrary to the practice of civilised warfare, they had been torn during the disastrous period of the French Revolution and the tyranny of Buonaparte.” “The same feelings which induce the people of France to wish to retain the pictures and statues of other nations,” he added, “would naturally induce other nations to wish, now that success is on their side, that the property should be returned to their rightful owners.” In addition, he noted, returning it would underline to the French the scale and finality of their defeat, while keeping it in Paris might encourage them to believe that they were still the rightful masters of Europe.
In the event, only just over half of the looted objects were returned; the rest had been sent out to provincial museums in France, beyond the knowledge of the occupying allied armies. These events sparked widespread debate across Europe. Paradoxically, they led to a new determination by European states to found or expand museums and to send out expeditions to acquire ancient cultural artifacts, following the lead of Napoleon rather than that of Wellington. This new development, among others, led, for example, to the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles by the British Museum in 1816.
Nevertheless, Wellington’s disapproval of military plunder did find an increasing number of supporters as the nineteenth century progressed. The duke himself thought that plunder distracted the troops from the military operations at hand and alienated the local population, which, as his experience in expelling Napoleon’s forces from Spain had shown, it was very important to keep on one’s side (at the time, Wellington had won over the locals by keeping his soldiers well disciplined, and in return, guerrilleros had fought alongside the British and the Portuguese).
This latter consideration played a significant role in the American Civil War, in which the Union wanted to avoid lasting damage to universities, museums and their collections in the South and so ordered that:
Classical works of art, libraries, scientific collections, or precious instruments, such as astronomical telescopes, as well as hospitals, must be secured against all avoidable injury, even when they are contained in fortified places whilst besieged or bombarded.
This was the first formal recognition that cultural property was different from other kinds of property and formed the basis for subsequent international declarations on the issue.Image: Pullquote: Every state has, as the Hague Convention urged more than a century ago, a duty to act as the trustee of the culture of all nations, not just its own. Essay Types: Essay