More War, More Looting

Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece

From Jason and his argonauts to Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, cultural takings are nothing new. So argues Richard J. Evans—Professor of History at Wolfson College, Cambridge, and Chair of the U.K. Spoliation Advisory Panel—in a terrific long-read that argues the looting of heritage during wartime continue despite attempts to police conflict.

It is a beautifully written historical summary of wartime looting, which puts the ancient world, modern unrest, and World War II in historical context. I really recommend giving the entire piece a read, but here are some highlights:

The history of [looting] 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.
. . .
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.
. . .
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.

  1. Richard J. Evans, Art in the Time of War, The National Interest, May-June 2011, http://nationalinterest.org/article/art-the-time-war-5163 (last visited Apr 19, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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