WSJ Historically Speaking: On the Trail of Art Looters

A relief from Rome’s Arch of Titus showing the spoils of Jerusalem. PHOTO: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Since 2014, Islamic State has been doing its best to destroy all traces of pre-Islamic culture in Iraq and Syria. Hammers and explosives aren’t its only tools. The antiquities trade is worth billions, and the self-styled caliphate is funding itself in part by looting and selling ancient treasures.

In late May, the Journal reported that U.S. and European Union authorities were scrutinizing a pair of art dealers as part of a wider investigation into who has been facilitating the market for ancient coins, statues and relics stolen by Islamic State. The dealers say they have done nothing wrong.

Looting for profit and propaganda would hardly have surprised the cultures that made these artifacts. In ancient times, it was a given that no victory was complete without the final humiliation of cultural destruction. In a show of power, the enemy’s temples, art and monuments had to be publicly despoiled. The Arch of Titus in Rome, which celebrates the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, shows Roman soldiers triumphantly bearing aloft the treasures of the Jews’ Great Temple, including its menorah.

The Romans may also have been the first to recognize that religious objects and works of art belonged to a different category than mere “spoils of war.” The famous orator and lawyer Cicero made the point in 70 B.C., when he prosecuted Gaius Verres, the governor of Sicily. Verres, Cicero said in a blistering introductory speech, had stripped towns there not only of “public statues and ornaments, but he also plundered all the temples consecrated in the deepest religious feelings of the people.” After Cicero’s assault, Verres’ own attorney could only recommend to his client that he leave the country—which he did.

It became fashionable, for a while, for emperors to pay lip service to the idea of protecting cultural heritage. But the emperors of the Roman East, ruling from Constantinople, had no qualms about embellishing their city with looted art. In 1204, they received a taste of their own medicine during the Venetian sacking of the city. Constantinople’s pride and joy, its four gilt-copper horse statues, ended up on top of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice’s main square.

Centuries later, as the Enlightenment awakened an interest in universal rights, European jurists began to argue that art, religious objects and educational property belonged to a special category that was off-limits to invaders. Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, may have believed that he was rescuing the Parthenon sculptures from Turkish mistreatment when he transferred the marbles to England in 1805. But many people, including Lord Byron, denounced his action as cultural theft.

In another example of Europe’s change in attitude, following Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the victorious Duke of Wellington insisted that the final peace treaty contain a restitution clause. Napoleon had ransacked Europe of its treasures; now, much was returned to its rightful owners. Among the objects France had to return were Venice’s St. Mark’s horses. Napoleon had taken them to Paris to decorate his Arc de Triomphe. Truly, what goes around comes around.

Several decades later, a German-American lawyer named Francis Lieber played a crucial part in establishing modern safeguards against looting. As a young man, Lieber had fought in the Napoleonic War and witnessed the emperor’s plundering firsthand. Later, during the U.S. Civil War, he endured the heartbreak of seeing his sons fight on opposite sides.

Although he knew it was useless to try to stop the tides of war, Lieber felt that he could make a difference in the way it was fought. In 1863 he worked with the White House to develop a military code of conduct for the Union armies. Lieber’s code made it clear that cultural property such as museums, libraries and churches were to be protected and looting prohibited. The code laid the groundwork for subsequent international efforts, including the Allied role in rescuing artistic treasures stolen by the Nazis in World War II.

But restitution remains no easy matter. Earlier this year, Poland’s National Museum in Kraków celebrated the return of three Nazi-appropriated artworks. It had taken 78 years to get them back.

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