The Why Files The Why Files --

The Art of Looting. The Looting of Art


A contrary voice
Archeologists broadly support UNESCO's simple equation, cultural property = national patrimony. But The Why Files chanced upon a contrary opinion from Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, who proposes a different approach (see "Whose Culture..." in the bibliography). Instead of insisting that antiquities remain at home, he prefers that countries regulate them in a way that promotes local museums, allow some exports to foreign museums, and earns money for local people at the same time.

Such a system could help in a country like Mali, where thousands of Djenne-jeno terra cottas were looted during the 1980s. The looted sites were not documented, and our picture of the culture that made the terra-cottas remains foggy.  A small boat made of metal like this was used to weigh gold.Mali is fourth from the bottom on the United Nation's Human Development Index, and Appiah observes that the pressing national problem is not a lack of ancient art; it's a lack of money. Any cure to the looting crisis, he indicates, must take that into account.

The Akan people of West Africa used these brass figurines to weigh out gold dust as money. When coins were introduced, they began to sell these figurines. Does it make sense to consider them all the "national patrimony" of African states? Photo: Smithsonian

The Why Files Caught up with Appiah by phone, then edited our conversation into interview format...

The Why Files:
You grew up in Ghana. How has that affected your view of antiquities?

Kwame Anthony Appiah:
Ghana was home, but I went to England at nine for boarding school. I grew up with lots of mostly Akan artifacts around the house. My mother bought brass weights and pots, starting in the 1950s. People were selling their collections because they didn't use them any more. These brass figures were used to weigh gold dust, which was the currency. Once gold dust was replaced by coins, people did not need the weights, so they sold them. As a child, I would go on the veranda, the traders would open up a cloth, and there they would be. They were commonplace objects, but I liked them, some were beautiful, very finely made. My mother acquired a lot of knowledge, and after a while, people interested in African art would come to look at her collection. When I started writing a book about globalization, it struck me that the exchange of art is one of the main ways in which we interact with other cultures. What was important about art did not have to do with thinking of it as belonging to some group.

Museums and archeologists say cultural property should largely remain in the country where it was found. What's your take on this?

Ripping off is bad, but because my model case [the Akan brasses] was where people sold objects because they wanted to, the rip-off argument did not apply. Somebody put an awful lot of effort into making the Akan brasses, but the people who inherited them clearly did not think of them as particularly precious, and wanted to sell them.

UNESCO says antiquities are national patrimony, but you write about inconsistencies in that view [including the Afghanistan example already discussed, and an 1874 British expedition in Kumasi, Ghana. The colonists thought they were collecting, their actions would now be against international law.]

These things were taken in the context of warfare; it was assumed that the law of war allowed you to take them. The English did not think it was illegal, and to the Asante, conquering and looting were a basis for collection as well. [Some of what the British were procuring had been "collected" during previous Asante conquests -- in modern terms, the Brits were looting loot.] My Asante ancestors did not think that was illegal, they thought it was perfectly proper. [Note: Asante is also spelled Ashanti.]

Woman in traditional African garb wears large gold bracelet and ringEliot Elisofon National Museum of African Art

Just because something is found in one country, you don't think it is necessarily "national patrimony"...

National patrimony is exactly the wrong way to see it. In Italy, people are looting things that were made by the ancient Greeks. They were not made by the Italian people. Italy has only been a country for 150 years; it's nutty to say this stuff belongs to the Italian people. [In his article, Appiah put it this way: "I confess I hear the sound of Etruscans and Greeks turning over in their dusty graves: patrimony, here equals imperialism plus time." However, he does agree that Italian law should govern activities on Italian soil.]

Doesn't the UNESCO treaty protect local cultures from exploitation, the destruction of heritage?

No. What is going on is bad, because we humans lose information that would be important to understand these objects. But the pieties about national heritage have gotten in the way of productive sharing of these things, and would lead, if you follow the museum director's view, to thinking that American museums should contain only native American and American-made art, and all Norwegian art should be in Norway, and all Nigerian art should be in Nigeria. It leads to a bunch of artistic ghettos.

What might be a better approach to handling cultural property, antiquities?

You should know where it came out of the ground, that's part of trying to figure out what the object is. But under the current scheme, if you reveal where something was found, you are unable to do anything with it. Under my scheme, you would take the object to the national museum and tell them what you knew. They could decide to buy it, or let you keep it. Everybody would get more information about the object -- and the culture -- and the museum system would know what is there. [Appiah also suggested taxing antiquity exports to support local acquisitions...]

Nothing in international law prevents a country from establishing this mechanism, does it?

No. In Ghana, the law requires export licenses for antiquities, which means a museum person gets to see everything going out of the country, although I may be only person in Ghana who has ever used it. [It's hard to fight the global consensus about cultural property.] The other side is so extreme, and they are in charge. The archeologists and their professional body endorse these strange views. We have all these laws, rules that are supposed to stop it, so why are the looters still digging? Because they can, because the objects are rightly regarded as objects of great interest and value. Some people will still procure them, especially when the objects are in poor countries and the people who want them are rich.

Poor people don't care much about this stuff, but they do care about getting some money, do care about feeding their kids... They may even know it's illegal, but they almost certainly don't think it's bad, how are you going to persuade them? Significant cultural works are a contribution to the culture of the world. ... The rule should protect the object and make it available to people who will benefit from experiencing it."

Our rule: always read the bibliography.


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

©2018, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.