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Art in the Time of War

April 19, 2011 Topic: HistorySociety Regions: EgyptIraqEurope

Art in the Time of War

Mini Teaser: From Jason and the Golden Fleece to Napoleon and the Rosetta Stone it has been to the victor go the spoils. There may no longer be whole-scale pillaging of the Nazi era, but from Egypt to Iraq the tradition continues.

by Author(s): Richard J. Evans

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.

THE RISE of the nation-state brought with it a growing consciousness of the need to preserve the national heritage. The idea that the looting of cultural objects in wartime should be outlawed thus gained strength. European nations began to catalog and protect their own artifacts and valuables, and to take steps to preserve what was increasingly regarded as the common European cultural heritage, above all in Greece and Italy. Even the destruction and looting of the Chinese emperor’s Summer Palace in the Second Opium War in 1860 aroused widespread criticism in Europe. In 1874, the Brussels Declaration on the laws and customs of war outlawed the destruction of enemy property unless it was militarily required. These principles were elaborated at the first Hague Conference in 1899 and enshrined in the Hague Convention of 1907, to which Germany was a signatory (a significant point in view of events later in the century).

The Hague Convention explicitly banned what it called “pillage” and declared that an occupying country must act as the trustee of the property and possessions of the defeated state and its citizens. The problem was, however, that modern artillery warfare, high-explosive shells, and the sheer mass and weight of the military hardware then available made indiscriminate bombardment of towns and cities far easier than ever before. Meanwhile, the advent of democracy and mass nationalism had begun to transform the nature of warfare into a conflict not between professional armies but between whole nations and peoples, in which attacking the civilian population by means of economic blockade or, indeed, bombardment from the ground or air was becoming tacitly accepted, even though with the state of military technology at the time, accurate pinpointing of targets to avoid cultural monuments was more or less impossible.

In the First World War, zeppelins bombed London, and German and Austro-Hungarian shelling destroyed the Serbian National Museum in Belgrade. It proved impossible to stop actions such as the destruction of the Catholic University of Leuven’s library by the German army in 1914 along with sundry other, less famous monuments. On the other hand, actual looting, and in particular the theft or removal of works of art, was carried out on a fairly limited scale during the First World War, at least in comparison to what came after. The stalemate on the western front ensured that there was little opportunity for the occupying Germans to acquire works of art illicitly—Paris was well beyond the German zone, for instance—and few examples seem to be known of theft on the more mobile eastern front. The Hague Convention, signed so recently, still commanded some respect.

NOT FOR long. The Second World War saw the plunder, looting and spoliation of cultural objects in Europe to a degree that dwarfed anything seen even in the French revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. World War I may not have witnessed much state-sponsored theft, but the upheaval of the conflict opened up a new world of expropriation on a general scale. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was followed by the wholesale confiscation of private property. And in Germany, the Nazis believed they had a right to take what their enemies—notably the trade unions and the socialists—owned, without compensation, which they did as soon as they came to power, following this with the stage-by-stage expropriation of the property of Germany’s Jews. In the struggle of all against all that social Darwinism (at least in the version the Nazis believed in) preached, might was right, and the defeated had no rights either to property or even ultimately to life.

In practice, of course, such beliefs legitimized not only formal practices of looting and expropriation by the Nazi Party and the German state but also random yet very widespread acts of individual theft, blackmail and extortion by ordinary party members, lower state officials, low-ranking storm troopers and, during the war, members of the armed forces. Not surprisingly, the Third Reich soon became a byword for corruption.

A few leading Nazis used their newly acquired fortunes to start building up large collections of art, both personal and institutional. Hermann Göring for instance owned ten houses, castles and hunting lodges, all provided and maintained at the taxpayers’ expense. In all these locations, and particularly in his vast and ever-expanding principal hunting lodge at Carinhall, named after his first wife, Göring wanted to display artworks, tapestries, paintings, sculptures and much else besides to emphasize his status as the Reich’s second man.

By contrast, the Reich’s first man, Adolf Hitler, made a point of avoiding ostentatious displays of personal wealth, preferring instead to accumulate an art collection for public use. Hitler had long planned to turn his hometown of Linz, in Austria, into the cultural capital of the new Reich, even drawing sketches for the new public buildings and museums he hoped to construct there. Berlin, too, had to have art museums suitable for its new status as “Germania,” the coming capital of the world. In 1939, Hitler engaged the services of an art historian, Hans Posse, a museum director in Dresden, to build the collection he needed for this purpose. Posse was provided with almost limitless funds, and by the middle of the war he was acquiring art objects (at manipulated prices and in defiance of individual countries’ laws) from all over German-occupied Europe, amassing an almost incredible total of more than eight thousand by the time of his death.

In March 1938, the Nazis invaded Austria. While German soldiers and Austrian Nazis broke into the homes of Jews, stealing whatever they wanted, or stopped Jewish women on the streets and divested them on the spot of their fur coats and jewelry, the SS and Gestapo made straight for the homes of Vienna’s most prominent Jewish families with orders to confiscate the contents.

Top of the list were the Rothschilds, whose collections were confiscated and then put up for auction to meet alleged tax liabilities—a common practice in the 1930s, made easier by 1939 through the imposition of special taxes and levies on German and Austrian Jews. Further regulations required Jewish emigrants to leave their assets behind if they emigrated, for appropriation by the Reich. After the conquest of France in 1940, too, the property of citizens who had fled the country also fell to the German Reich; the same applied eventually to all Jews deported from every occupied country in Europe to Auschwitz and other extermination camps in the east.

Looting was also widespread in countries inhabited by people the Nazis regarded as “subhuman.” German culture to the Nazi mind was intrinsically superior to that of others, and inferior races were capable neither of sustaining their own heritage nor of properly safeguarding the products of other cultures. Thus, German cultural artifacts had to be repatriated. Such beliefs were reminiscent of the French view, under Napoleon, that only France had the right to safeguard European culture, but of course the Nazis took this credo much further, gave it a racial twist and applied it in an extreme version of the nationalist ideology of the nineteenth century to their own alleged heritage rather than that of the classical world.

Following the German takeover in March 1939 of what remained of the Czech state after the Munich Agreement of the previous September, the invaders began confiscating objects without compensation from both public and private collections, including not only allegedly German items from the Czech National Museum and the library of Charles University in Prague but also from the palaces of the Hapsburg, Schwarzenberg and Lobkowitz families.

However, Hitler’s treatment of Czechoslovakia was relatively mild compared to that meted out to the Poles, whose country he invaded in September 1939. Hitler vowed to wipe Polish culture and identity off the face of the earth. The German invaders carried off large quantities of cultural booty. Country houses along the invasion route were ransacked, and pressure was applied to their aristocratic owners to reveal the whereabouts of hidden treasures. On December 16, 1939, the German authorities ordered the compulsory registration of all artworks and cultural objects dating from before 1850, together with jewelry, musical instruments, coins, books, furniture and more from the same period, in the parts of Poland annexed to the Reich. These were duly confiscated, along with the vast majority of Polish property in these areas. The orders in effect constituted a license to Germans to loot what they wanted.

Nazi legal expert Hans Frank ruled the remainder of Poland, decorating his headquarters with stolen artworks and shipping trophies back to his home in Bavaria (when American troops arrived there in 1945, they found a Rembrandt, a Da Vinci, a fourteenth-century Madonna from Kraków, and looted vestments and chalices from Polish churches). Quarrels broke out as Hermann Göring tried to obtain pictures for himself, with Hans Frank objecting to the removal of prize finds from his headquarters. Perhaps this was not such a bad idea, however, since Frank had no idea how to display or preserve Old Masters, and was once reprimanded by Nazi art historian Kajetan Mühlmann for hanging a painting by Leonardo da Vinci above a radiator.

This process of looting and expropriation was repeated on an even-larger scale when Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Among the most famous of these items was the celebrated Amber Room given to Peter the Great by King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia and subsequently augmented by further gifts from his successor. The Soviets had taken away all the furniture and movable items but left the amber paneling in place, and the room, installed in the Catherine Palace in the town of Pushkin, was dismantled and returned to Königsberg in East Prussia where it was put on display; most of it was in all likelihood destroyed in the battle for Königsberg at the end of the war, and any items remaining in storage will by now have crumbled into dust. The Soviets of course had removed many cultural treasures out of reach of the invading armies. There were no great private collections left in the Soviet Union, since all had been confiscated by the Communist state, and the Germans never managed to conquer Moscow or St. Petersburg; but much still remained to be looted. Two hundred seventy-nine paintings were carried off from Kharkhov, then the third-largest city in the Soviet Union and the most populous the Nazis captured. Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler requisitioned considerable quantities to decorate and furnish the planned SS headquarters at Wewelsburg.

THE SCALE of looting and expropriation practiced by the Germans between 1938 and 1945 was thus unprecedented—and its legacy carried on far beyond the Nazi defeat. The Bolsheviks, who had used Communist ideology to justify the mass confiscation of private property after 1917, were not unfamiliar with the practice, and the Nazis’ atrocities gave the opportunity, or excuse, for similar acts of plunder (both official and individual) by the incoming Red Army in the later stages of the war. In their hasty retreat, the Germans were forced to leave behind numerous collections, like others across Europe by this time placed for safekeeping in cellars, mines and other hiding places away from the heat of battle and the destructiveness of bombing raids. Special Soviet art-recovery units roamed the countryside searching for these hoards, and those they succeeded in finding were carried off to a special repository in Moscow. One and a half million cultural objects were eventually returned to East Germany with the establishment of the German Democratic Republic as an ally, or client state, of the Soviet Union after 1949.

But a good deal went astray. The mayor of the northwest German town of Bremen for example had sent the city’s art collection for safekeeping to a castle not far from Berlin, where Red Army troops found it. Arriving to inspect the collection, Viktor Baldin, a Russian architect enlisted in the Red Army, found the valuable works scattered around the countryside and did his best to recover them, in one case trading a Russian soldier a pair of boots for an etching by Albrecht Dürer. While Baldin kept the hundreds of drawings he had found, waiting for an opportunity to return his hoard to Bremen, other items from the same collection began to turn up on the art market at intervals; one dealer gave a Berlin woman 150 marks and a pound of coffee in return for a Cranach in 1956.

Eventually, when Mikhail Gorbachev inaugurated a more liberal regime in Russia, Baldin was able to petition the government to start negotiations for the collection’s return. The Bremen City Council offered a panel from the Amber Room taken by a German soldier who had been employed in packing it away, and a small number of other items were handed over, but this was not enough, and the Russians asked why they should give back looted art to Germany when so many of their own cultural treasures had disappeared or been destroyed as a result of the actions of the invading Nazi armies. Indeed, in 1998 the Russian Duma declared all the looted art state property, requiring an act of parliament to return it to the Germans. Controversy continues to rage in Russian political circles, and in the meantime, the bulk of the collection remains in the Hermitage; one thousand five hundred items from the Bremen state museum are still reckoned to be missing.

In the chaos and destruction of the last months of the war, many valuable cultural objects of all kinds were lost or destroyed. The Western Allies, not least as the result of pressure on the military authorities by concerned art experts in Britain and the United States, were acutely aware of the need to preserve the cultural heritage of Europe in the final phase of fighting—even before the D-day landings in 1944. Eisenhower’s supreme headquarters established a Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, or MFAA, charged with locating and safeguarding cultural objects and preventing looting by Allied troops. U.S. officials everywhere began compiling lists of stolen art to prevent Nazis from keeping the works hidden and profiting on the art market once the memory of the war had faded. MFAA units followed the army into liberated towns, scoured castles and mines, and began storing artworks preparatory to returning them to their original owners.

Looted art found in Germany was stored at the Munich Central Collecting Point. A major operation soon began to return the works, and lorries and trains carried many thousands of paintings, drawings, sculptures, altarpieces and other objects across Europe back to their places of origin. The collecting points were finally closed down in 1951, when the remaining objects were handed over to a West German agency, which returned another million finds to their owners, three-quarters of them outside Germany, over the next ten years. The rest, some three thousand five hundred lots, were then distributed to German museums and other institutions from which they could, and can still, be claimed on presentation of the proper documentation.

Inevitably, a large number of pieces remained unaccounted for—at least twenty thousand of them according to one estimate. Most of these are small items—silver, jewelry, crockery and the like—or paintings and drawings by minor artists that are obscure enough to have escaped the attention of art experts. It may not have been simple to conceal well-known paintings by celebrated artists, but such items as these were far easier to hide away until the opportunity presented itself to bring them to sale. During the 1950s, art dealers were not particularly concerned about the provenance of the items they were asked to put up for auction: most of their effort went into establishing their authenticity. Large numbers of artworks were brought onto the market by people who had acquired them in a variety of dubious ways during the war, and then sold them on to institutions that in many cases bought them without knowing where they had come from.

Following the return of so much looted art to its owners in the aftermath of the war, the number of restitution actions and claims fell sharply during the 1950s. Furthermore, time limits on legal claims to the return of stolen goods existed, and still exist, in almost all European countries (Germany, thirty years; England, six years). Only two countries in Europe do not have such legislation: Poland, because of the sheer scale of the spoliation to which Polish collections were subjected during the war, and Greece, because of the Elgin Marbles. In essence, it became very difficult for former owners to obtain legal redress against the misappropriation of their possessions during a war that ended as long ago as 1945. The interest in restitution more or less died in the face of all these obstacles.

THEN, IN 1989–90, came the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. As court cases for the restitution of houses and businesses seized by the Communists from 1949 onward grew in number, compensation actions for loss and damage caused by the Nazi regime were launched, especially by former slave laborers. In the United States, and to some extent elsewhere as well, historical memory of the Holocaust moved to the mainstream of national culture, with memorial museums being founded in many cities, and increased attention in the mass media, reaching perhaps a high point with Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. The 1990s saw the renewal of war-crimes trials in some countries (although few in number and not uniformly successful). And Eastern European archives were opened for investigation, allowing many missing works to be traced.

Thus the art world reawakened to the problem of looted art after decades of treating it as a low priority. In December 1998, the new tone was set by the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, hosted by the U.S. Department of State with over forty national governments and numerous NGOs invited. The meeting built on the experience of the previous year’s international conference set up to deal with the question of Nazi gold, including that taken from the dental fillings of extermination-camp victims, much of which had found its way into the vaults of Swiss banks by the end of the war. The 1998 conference demanded the identification of all art confiscated by the Nazis, with a view to restoring it to its former owners on moral grounds even if they were not entitled to it legally. The commitments forged at the Washington Conference were followed up by similar agreements made by art-gallery and museum directors. There have been resolutions by international bodies such as the Council of Europe to similar effect. In this climate, the chances of claimants successfully securing the return of looted art were dramatically increased.

Considering the favorable environment for looted art’s return, many expected museums and galleries in the UK and elsewhere to be inundated with claims. But this has not happened. In many cases, the trail has gone cold, and evidence is almost by definition hard to obtain, since the cases in which claims were clear were often settled in the immediate aftermath of the war. Often the original owners are dead, and sometimes their heirs had been killed by the Nazis as well. Entire families perished in very large numbers in Auschwitz and the other death camps, and while institutions, museums and galleries possessed the knowledge, the resources and the evidence to mount actions to try and regain what they had lost, the same was seldom true of individuals. So only a small fraction of the artworks identified by museums and other bodies as of uncertain provenance during the years 1933 to 1945 have actually attracted claims. The UK Spoliation Advisory Panel set up in 2000 by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has dealt with little more than one case a year since then, though the steady trickle of claims shows no sign of drying up. In view of this trend, other countries such as the United States have been reluctant to follow suit and set up similar public bodies.

WHAT IS the future of preservation and restitution, then? As far as art taken from one country by another is concerned, as a general principle there is clearly a clash between any nation’s need to preserve and display its own cultural heritage and the global community’s need to learn about other cultures through universal museums like the Metropolitan or the British Museum. The way forward is surely to accept the validity of the universal museum, but to make exceptions where an object has been stolen relatively recently, or where it is of overwhelming cultural and historical importance to the nation or region from which it has been, whether legally or illicitly, removed.

In the process of righting the wrongs of the past, it is clearly not possible to achieve anything like adequate restitution on a global scale. The major thrust of the restitution effort has been directed toward reparation for the crimes committed by the Nazis, not least because the survivors and their immediate heirs are still among us. As professor Michael Marrus remarked in his recent study of the subject, “the Holocaust restitution campaign arose in highly unusual circumstances, unlikely to be replicated and unlikely therefore to affect other campaigns for justice for historic wrongs.” In the end, as he says:

Restitution is more about the present than about the past: it speaks to the survivors who are still among us . . . to the society at large for which such issues may be said to matter . . . and to a world in which injustice and wrongdoing are still too common—but for which, at the very least, we should have mechanisms available, when the carnage ends, to seek some measure of justice.

While there is a sincere and to some degree effective worldwide effort to restore art looted in the Nazi period, however, the international community has been signally unsuccessful in preventing looting and destruction from occurring during and immediately after new military conflicts. While there is now a mass of international legislation in place to preserve cultural artifacts in times of war, it is still very difficult to enforce it effectively. International intervention in conflicts like the Balkan wars of the 1990s is obviously difficult to organize and slow to implement. By the time it takes place, it may be too late. In the wake of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Serbian forces deliberately shelled the public library in Sarajevo in an attempt to obliterate the cultural and historical memory of Bosnia, while Croatian gunners knocked down the historic and symbolic bridge at Mostar and vandalized Serbian Orthodox churches in the places they conquered.

In the chaos following the invasion of Iraq by U.S. and allied troops in the early twenty-first century, the motivation for looting and destruction was not cultural genocide but private gain, coupled with military indifference. As the reporter Robert Fisk noted:

I was among the first to enter the looted Baghdad archaeological museum, crunching my way through piles of smashed Babylonian pots and broken Greek statues. I watched the Islamic library of Baghdad consumed by fire—14th and 15th century Korans embraced by flames so bright that it hurt my eyes to look into the inferno. And I have spent days trudging through the looters’ pits and tunnels of Samaria, vast cities dug up, their precious remains smashed open—thousands upon thousands of magnificent clay jars, their necks as graceful as a heron’s, all broken open for gold or hurled to one side as the hunters burrowed ever deeper for ever older treasures.

As Fisk explains: “Of 4,000 artefacts discovered by 2005 from the 15,000 objects looted from the Baghdad Museum two years earlier, a thousand were found in the United States . . . 600 in Italy,” many of them pillaged by order from private collectors and their agents. Greed, he noted, had been globalized. It is hard to resist the comparison with 1945, when the careful preparations made by the MFAA ensured that European cultural heritage was largely preserved and its looted assets returned to their rightful owners.

It is vital to learn the lessons of the Second World War and put effective arrangements in place in advance of future fighting to rescue and restore cultural objects and prevent looting. Such arrangements were not made in Iraq in 2003, and the devastation was vast. The international community cannot prevent looting and destruction in the course of civil unrest, but it can take steps to minimize it in cases of interstate conflicts. Above all, the art and museum world needs to be more vigilant in monitoring the trade in looted goods in the wake of conflicts such as those in Iraq or Afghanistan, and law-enforcement agencies need to step in with sanctions against those who encourage—or benefit—from it. In a globalized world, 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.

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