The Why Files The Why Files --

The Art of Looting. The Looting of Art


A changing of the tide
The looting of archeological sites is far more archaic than the term "archeology" itself. The threat of looters explains why Egypt's pharaohs went to such great lengths to hide their tombs -- which mostly got robbed anyway.

centaur fights a manAfter a conquest, looting was pretty much a reflex just about everywhere, as far as we can tell. Not too long ago the (usually European) adventurer-archeologist became a hero exploring uncharted domains and returning with the hold full of booty. The best stuff ended up in museums -- the Metropolitan, the Berlin Museum, and above all, the British Museum.

At the British Museum: one of the marble metopes (individual sculptures in high relief) from a battle scene between the Greeks and the Centaurs. The Parthenon Marbles

It was a chase that some likened to big-game hunting, a parallel that former Metropolitan director Thomas Hoving accentuated by naming his 1975 book about acquiring art, "The Chase, the Capture." He described the thrill of bringing home the goodies this way: "The chase and the capture of a great work of art is one of the most exciting endeavors in life -- as dramatic, emotional , and fulfilling as a love affair."

Acquisitions were a hush-hush affair. Buyers did not want publicity, which could attract competitors and jack up the price. Many sellers wanted to remain anonymous. Many blamed the tax collectors for their reticence, but archeologists say it often stemmed from the fact that many objects had recently been touched by the looter's shovel. The changing international attitude toward cultural property appeared in a 1954 United Nations treaty. Written after the wholesale looting of Europe's artwork during World War II, the Hague Convention defined significant antiquities as "cultural property" and the "national patrimony" of states where they were found.

In recent years, the Metropolitan and British Museum have been overshadowed by the wildly wealthy J. Paul Getty Museum, which has spent Getty's oil money on a formidable collection. The Getty Villa, focused on antiquities, has just reopened after a $275-million renovation, in Malibu, Calif. Marion True, who's now on trial in Rome, was a Getty curator until last fall.

Palatial home in California has been converted to an art museum.
The Malibu Villa of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles houses 34 antiquities wanted by Italy or Greece. Its former curator is on trial for trafficking in stolen antiquities. Has this cultural powerhouse stepped over the line from collecting to buying looted art? Courtesy Joel Grossman

Theft from the Earth?
The trial in Rome and the Metropolitan's high-profile about-face in New York have put the issue of antiquity theft into the headlines. And that's just where a noisy group of archeologists would like to see it. The American Archaeological Institute sees theft from archeological sites as "a kind of theft from the Earth," says Bell, who handles the issue for the group, and supervises a big dig at Morgantina, Sicily, "which not only damages the place where the work is found, but also the work, by depriving it of its history and what can be learned from that."

While looting can never be halted entirely, Bell says, "we are engaged in a new effort to put a stop to it, diminish it. The idea is to educate the public... to make people aware of the damage that is done to archeological sites, and to the works themselves. And the public include the members of the boards of trustees of museums, and local people as well."

Stone figures decorate the walls of a large room in a museum.
The long view of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. In the distance, we see one of the pediments that was previously seen atop the Parthenon. Photo from Wikipedia

We can only wonder what is going at the British Museum, proprietor of the disputed Elgin Marbles. Even though these sculptural panels have been in London since the early 1800s, Bell says they deserve to go back. "The Elgin marbles, in my view, should be returned. The Parthenon is supremely important, and it has a right to wholeness. It should not have been dismembered."

A building carved from stone with many columns lies in ruins.
Home of the Elgin Marbles or just where they used to live? Photo from: Wikipedia

Where to draw the line?
The British Museum and the Metropolitan are crammed with antiquities from other lands. Could they be cleaned out by wholesale repatriation? Probably not, says Jenifer Neils, a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, because many of the older expeditions were legit. "In the old days, museums teamed with host countries, and as part of the deal, the museums got a huge collection, wonderful stuff, but if you go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and look at the object ... you have a picture of it coming out of the ground. The context is known; it was all above board and legal."

While museums may suggest that, once started, repatriations will continue until the shelves are bare, Neils calls that "open-the-floodgate mentality on the part of museums a smokescreen. The requests are very specific arguments for very specific objects. Turkey is not walking in and saying 'we want everything back from the Berlin Museum. But we do want some Hittite artifacts, that are significant to our indigenous cultures.'"

A second side argument concerns private collectors. If museums stop collecting, will individuals buy up the booty and lock it away? If so, then museums' withdrawal from the market would be harmful, not just useless, since it would accelerate the privatization of culture. "There is this argument that if museums don't do it, private collectors may take up the slack," says Neils. "That's a specious argument." orange and black greek vase and textShe concedes that looters sell to museums and collectors, "but In most cases it's museums that are really paying the looters' salaries. By the fact that museums are buying from dealers, who are acquiring from looters, that is encouraging looting. If museums stopped buying, looters would have to find another profession."

Difficult cases
More than one expert we spoke with stressed that even during the conversation, sites were being looted in the Middle East, Central and South America, and elsewhere. So why are prosecutions so rare? For one thing, in poor countries, an artifact's cash value greatly exceeds its historical and cultural value, making looting often culturally acceptable. But there are also legal problems, says Patty Gerstenblith, a professor of law at DePaul University (Chicago) and co chair of the American Bar Association's cultural property committee. "It's very difficult to get the kind of evidence you need. The burden is upon the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution lacks written evidence, it's very difficult to prove."

A welter of national and international laws may be relevant, Gerstenblith says. "It depends on what law the person is breaking, it depends on what country was the source, and when the object left." The Roman Empire, she says, covered something like 39 modern countries, making it hard to know if a Roman object came from Italy, or a dozen other countries.

Without some really clear documentation, it's often very difficult to prove a case, she says. But governments may find it easier to seize antiquities. "It's a lower standard of proof, and it's easier to do."

Antiquities are national patrimony. Right?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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