The Why Files The Why Files --

The Art of Looting. The Looting of Art


Inconsistencies, paradoxes
The hubbub about seeing antiquities as "cultural property" traces back to a 1970 treaty of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Office (UNESCO). The Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property defined "cultural property" as "property, which on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each state as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science." The treaty obliges signing states to regulate or prohibit transfers of such material, and to help other states recover cultural property. The United States signed in 1983.

closeup of eroded faces on statuesIt's a compelling idea: Cultural property belongs to the source nation, or at least to whatever nation that exists where the objects are found. But the specifics can be confusing:

Cultural property makes the most sense if modern people and governments have a connection to the antiquities found on their soil. But that's seldom true: Nobody knows, for example, who descended from the Anasazis, who built major buildings in the American Southwest about a millennium ago, and then disappeared.

Whose cultural property would be contained in a Spanish galleon that is salvaged from the Florida coast? UNESCO would say the sunken gold and silver belongs to the United States. But the shiny metal was mined by Indian slaves in Spanish mines in South America; the Spaniards, surely guilty of genocide by modern standards, were shipping their plunder back to the seat of empire in Europe. Who has title to this stuff -- the Spanish, who owned it? The divers who pulled it from the seafloor? The U.S. government, which did not exist when the ship sank, and whose territory may have played little or no role in the shipment? Or, if fairness is our goal, should the booty be returned to indigenous people in Mexico or Bolivia?

Does the national government have the ability to maintain the objects? The British Museum houses a female figure called a caryatid that supported the roof of a building at the Acropolis until the British removed it in the early 1800s, which contravenes today's law. Although most of the building was destroyed in the Greek war for independence from Turkey in 1821-33, one part survived. But the on-site caryatids are severely weathered compared to the stone lady in the British Museum.

Weathered and without arms, statues of women hold up an ancient Greek building.
Caryatids support the Erechtheion, at the Acropolis in Athens. Life (and especially acid rain) are hard on an exposed stone stature: notice the weathering here (and in the closeup above). Photo: Wikipedia

Or consider Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Museum curators, nervous about Taliban hostility toward non-Islamic art, wanted to move priceless pieces to a purpose-built museum in Switzerland. With the works already crated, the curators sought an exception to UNESCO's "stay in the home country" dictum. UNESCO refused, and Taliban enforcers "responded to these extraordinary artifacts by taking out mallets and pulverizing them," according to Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University. As Appiah wrote, demonstrates consistency as the hobgoblin of small minds: "Would the ideologues of cultural nativism, those experts who insist that archaeological artifacts are meaningless outside their land of origin, find solace in the fact that these works were destroyed by Afghan hands, on Afghan soil?" (see "Whose Culture..." in the bibliography). (We'll talk shortly to Appiah about a non-UNESCO approach to cultural property...)

Looting is not just something that happens late at night, or when a bribed cop looks the other way. Rampant looting followed the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2002. Jeffrey Spurr, a Middle-Eastern librarian at Harvard University, says more than typewriters or desks got lifted. He told us archival material and rare books from the national library and archives was stored in a basement. Then "parties unknown, aware that valuable material were there, stole what they desired, and broke the pipes to flood the rest, covering their tracks completely."

Papers ripped from books are strewn throughout outdoor courtyard Pile of documents after looting at a library, Bayt al-Hikma, Iraq. Courtesy Nabil al-Tikriti

The loot presumably included the nation's most important ancient manuscripts and books, Spurr says, but "it's difficult to establish exactly what has gone." After a "series of troubled attempts to deal with the books, they were removed to an above-ground venue, where they sat for weeks growing mold." The Coalition Provisional Authority provided money for refrigerators, but not freezers. "Freezing is necessary for wet, damaged works on paper, and that was not achieved," Spurr says. Since the looted material has apparently not appeared on the international market, Spurr assumes it's being stored until it's safe to sell it.

But why should we care about some oldy-moldy books written in languages we can't even read? "Because a country's history is embodied in the cultural institutions that contain the manuscripts, that validate the historical knowledge," says Spurr, who is leading an effort to salvage Iraq's libraries. "It's in the same sense that you would care if the great institutions in Washington DC, the Smithsonian, for example, were destroyed."

The catch, of course, is this: An ancient book or other artifact can survive 1,000 years, and then perish in five years of war.

Endangered antiquities, modern solutions
Bones of buried skeletons stick out of the deep red-colored earth.If looting is a logical outcome of the current system, maybe we should deem antiquities guilty until proven innocent. "The gold standard" for objects that a museum considers buying -- or even accepting as gifts -- is to assume that they were looted illegally, says Richard Leventhal, director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. "They should only be accepted in collections, or bought by museums, if there is absolutely irrefutable proof... that they came out of the host country, pre-1983, when the United States signed the UNESCO convention, or preferably earlier."

Skeletons of African slaves found in a cemetery in Campeche, Mexico, dated to the late 1500s and early 1600s. Careful archeological excavation proved that these captured humans started life in Africa. Photo: T. Douglas Price UW-Madison

A simpler solution is to stop collecting, as the Penn museum has done. Although the museum does accept donations, "Before the acquiring commission would consider it, we ask, is it legal? Should it be out of the country of origin?"

Bell, who speaks for the American Institute of Archaeology, concurs. "The Met, the Getty, the Cleveland Museum of Art, have splendid collections of antiquities. It isn't as if antiquities should be added all the time. Maybe they should be buying from living artists... The art of the past is finite, and because the process of obtaining it is destructive, maybe those purchases should be reduced."

Both a borrower and a lender be...
Long-term loans are one way to mesh conflicting demands for ownership and exhibition, says Bell, with the rich-country institution sponsoring scientific research into the object, but the source country retaining ownership and eventually getting it back.

As we've noted, attitudes toward collecting and looting do change over time. Over the last century, archeology has become infused with an ethos of preservation, a respect for the rights of other cultures, and the advent of sophisticated analytical techniques. Looking back, the archeology of 150 or 75 years ago seems rather close to outright plundering. "Until about the middle of the 20th century, you could not tell the looters from the archeologists," says law professor Gerstenblith. "The science of archeology only started to develop at the end of the 19th century; the application of scientific technology, more like the mid-20th century. Before this time, it did not matter how you took it out of the ground, maybe it was against the patrimony law, but from a public interest perspective, it didn't make much difference."

Cutting edge of three incisor teeth are filed at extreme angles Upper incisor teeth at the Campeche site had been filed at an angle, a distinctive adornment practiced in Africa. Photo: T. Douglas Price

The significance of methodical archeology on undisturbed sites, Gerstenblith says, emerges from the recent discovery of remains of African slaves in Mexico, dating to roughly 100 years after Columbus sailed to the New World. "Through this careful excavation, we were able to change our understanding of history. It looks like slaves were being brought to the Americas 100 to 150 years earlier than we thought. If that site had been looted, you would never have that evidence preserved."

In return for a few trinkets, the secret past of an entire people could have remained secret.

National patrimony. Is that the only context for cultural artifacts?


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

©2017, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.