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Looted Art: The Neverending Story

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 22, 2011 03:09 PM

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Writing in The National Interest, the British historian Richard J. Evans provides a sweeping overview of art-looting through the ages -- from ancient Byzantium, through Napoleon and the Nazis, up to modern Iraq and Egypt. The world, he argues, has gotten better at returning stolen art to its original owners, but is still terrible at keeping it safe in the first place.

Evans begins in antiquity, when the looting of art objects in war seemed perfectly natural -- just a way of showing that you'd won. The general assumption was that the victorious nation had proved its essential superiority, and would be better able to appreciate the art anyway. Thus, when Napoleon conquered Italy at the end of the eighteenth century, thousands of artworks were brought to the Louvre "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.'" (The loot included artworks which had, in turn, been looted by the Italians from all over Europe; included in the haul were "live camels and lions, and the entire papal archive.")

At Napoleon's defeat, cooler heads prevailed: Wellington insisted on returning stolen artworks to their original owners, and, in the American Civil War, the Union Army adopted an official policy of leaving art alone, putting museums and libraries in the same class as hospitals. (Stealing art from the local population, generals had discovered, turns it against you.) But the increased firepower and savagery of twentieth-century warfare put an end to those enlightened policies. All over Europe, art was blown up in bombing raids. The Nazis looted art on a massive scale never before seen in history, and squabbled among themselves over the gems of Europe's museums and private collections. There was so much stolen art that it was often treated carelessly -- the German governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, had to be reprimanded by a Nazi art historian "for hanging a painting by Leonardo da Vinci above a radiator."

A surprisingly large amount of the art displaced by the World Wars has been returned, not necessarily to its owners, but at least to its country of origin. But, Evans notes, the looting and destruction of art continues with every new conflict. Evans quotes the journalist Robert Fisk, who wrote, in his forward to The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq:

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.

The looting of art continues apace; if it's no longer motivated by nationalist fervor, it's still driven by personal greed. By 2005, four thousand of the 15,000 artworks looted from the Baghdad Museum in 2003 had been found. A thousand were found in the United States, and 600 in Italy. Many of them, Evans writes, were "pillaged by order from private collectors and their agents."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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