Lessons in Looting
By Stephanie Goldfarb
“Preservation of cultural heritage is of great importance for all peoples of the world and it is important that this heritage should receive international protection.”
Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the large-scale looting of Iraq’s cultural treasures from archaeological sites and museums has captured the attention of the world. Civilians, museum directors, archaeologists and politicians have watched with dismay and desperation as the cradle of civilization has been systematically stripped of its cultural heritage. Under the less than watchful gaze of the occupying forces of the United States and its coalition, Iraq fell victim to some of the most extensive and costly wartime looting the world has ever seen. In the shadow of this tragedy, however, lurk the ghosts of lootings past.
The looting of Iraq is an eerie reminder of the state-sponsored looting of Kuwait by Iraq during its August, 1990 invasion and subsequent seven-month occupation. In the wake of current cultural devastation, the systematic pillage of Kuwaiti heritage has been buried in the dust of the Gulf War, ignored and forgotten. Yet the Iraqi looting of Kuwait, particularly of the Kuwait National Museum and Dar al-Athat al-Islamiyya, was one of the greatest art crimes of the twentieth century. In order to understand the significance of the plunder of Kuwait, this event must be contextualized within a history of wartime art looting. Plundering the artistic and cultural heritage of a defeated adversary is a practice stretching back to the earliest civilizations. The scale and purpose of these looting practices has changed throughout history, and an examination of the evolution of wartime thievery of cultural heritage will allow for an understanding of the trajectory which led to the cultural rape of Kuwait in 1990.
In the earliest stages of human civilization, wartime art crimes were committed in order to glorify the victory of the conqueror. The oldest work of art known to be plundered in antiquity is the victory stele of the Akkadian ruler Naram-Sin, which commemorates Naram-Sin’s defeat of the Lullubi in a battle which took place around 2250 BC. In 1158 BC, the Elamites conquered this area and seized the stele as a prize of war, adding an inscription in Elamite which records and “celebrates the Elamite triumph over Naram-Sin’s much the later decscendants”. The victory of the Elamites was emphasized by the pillage of Naram-Sin’s own monument of triumph. There are many other instances of wartime art looting during the first millennium BC: the sack of the Temple of Solomon in 586 BC, the pillage of Athens by Xerxes in 479 BC and again by Sulla in 86 BC, and the seizure of art in defeated provinces by early feudal Chinese kings . All of these examples exhibit a similar underlying motivation—to symbolize the conquering power of the victor.
The Romans perpetuated the tradition of cultural plunder as a symbolic glorification of their conquering empire. The first wide-scale Roman looting took place during the sack of Syracuse between 214 and 212 BC. In The Parallel Lives, Plutarch describes the looting that took place under the direction of the general Marcellus: “He carried back with him the greater part and the most beautiful of the dedicatory offerings in Syracuse, that they might grace his triumph and adorn his city . . . trophies of triumphs”. For Marcellus, bringing home the loot of Syracuse was a way to celebrate his victory and to enrich his own city. Seizing the art of a conquered people and bearing it to Rome was a physical manifestation of Roman strength and virtue, and the pillaged art existed in Rome as constant reminders of military success.
Roman looting continued throughout the republic and into the imperial era. The most notable instance of wartime looting during the Roman Empire occurred during the sack of Jerusalem in 70 BC by the Emperor Titus. The Roman army pillaged the Temple and bore the treasures back to Rome, where the victory, looting and triumphal parade of stolen treasures are still recorded on the Arch of Titus to this day. This depiction in the friezes of the Arch demonstrates how looting had become an integral component of Roman military conquest. Victory was completed by the act of sacking an enemy city and bearing their cultural heritage home as trophies of military superiority: “parading captured artworks . . .symbolized conquest to the citizens of the victorious nation”. In the millennia since these Roman triumphal parades and the erection of monuments celebrating the looting, the Roman experience has become a model for subsequent empires that have adopted the same conception of wartime art looting.
During the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages, however, plundering lost much of the significance which it held during the Roman Empire. In these centuries, looting “tended to be strictly practical, the victorious general being more interested in that which could be eaten, worn, or turned into coin”. Thus, in these centuries, the motivation for art looting had become strictly economic and utilitarian. However, in the Renaissance, the plunder of art was largely propagated for cultural enrichment, which became the primary motivation for wartime looting . The Romans benefited greatly from the pillage of other peoples’ cultural heritage: almost all Roman art, architecture and literature was influenced or inspired by objects looted on the battlefield and paraded back to Rome in triumph. However, cultural enrichment was an added bonus for the Romans, as the main purpose of looting lay in the glorification of Roman victory. In the Renaissance, however, cultural enrichment became the central and primary impetus for the plunder of art. For example, Gustavus Adolphus, the seventeenth century king of Sweden, turned his court at Stockholm into a “cultural center” by filling it with loot plundered from across the continent . However, looting for the enhancement of culture, as practiced by Adolphus and other great plunderers of the Renaissance, would largely disappear with the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon perpetuated a wide-scale systematic seizure of art which would surpass all art crime which had previously been perpetuated during war. Napoleon strove to model his own empire after that of the Romans and consequently embraced the Roman paradigm of wartime art looting. For Napoleon, looting was thus a declaration of triumph, as it had been for the Romans, but it was also a demonstration of his ideological goals. Napoleon imagined that he was founding a new empire to rival that of Rome, and sought to demonstrate the similarity (but also the superiority) of Napoleonic France to ancient Rome. In order to align himself with the Roman Empire, Napoleon not only embraced the Roman model of looting, but specifically sought to seize the treasures of the Roman Empire itself. For Napoleon, conquering Rome meant conquering a symbol of power, and hence he “took symbolic possession of its treasures rather like a savage eating the heart of a noble enemy in order to ingest his powers”. He believed that “the Romans, once an uncultivated people, became civilized by transplanting to Rome the works of conquered Greece”, and France would do the same.
As a result of this ideological goal, Napoleon’s armies purged Rome of its most treasured cultural objects, including over 500 paintings and sculptures from the Vatican . On July 27-28, 1798, the first envoy carrying the treasures taken by Napoleon in Italy arrived in Paris—an occasion celebrated by the triumphant parade of the looted art through the streets of Paris . This spectacle included some of the most distinguished works of classical art—the Laocoon, the Apollo Belvedere, the Medici Venus, and the Discobolus among others—a parade which “deliberately echoed the classical Roman triumph”. The Horses of San Marco, the great bronze statues which graced San Marco in Venice, were another pivotal item on Napoleon’s wish-list. To Napoleon, the Horses of San Marco were the physical embodiment of the conqueror as plunderer:
The Horses of San Marco sum up, in their eerily beautiful forms, two millennia of cultural plunder. Venice herself had plundered them—from Constantinople after the infamous sack of 1204. But Constantinople, too had obtained them by violence.
As a result, the Four Horses were taken to Paris as yet another emblem of Napoleon’s triumph. Thus, wartime plunder under the reign of Napoleon exhibited a characteristic which had not previously been a major part of looting—the integration of ideology into plunder. Pillage of cultural heritage was perpetuated not only for military glory (as it had been for the Romans), not only for cultural enrichment (as it had been during the Renaissance), but also to further the ideological goals of Napoleon’s regime.
Napoleon further contributed to the development of wartime art plunder by instituting an extensive system of state-sponsored looting in the countries that his armies conquered. Hitherto, looting was largely an activity perpetuated by individual generals or even individual soldiers in an army. During the sack of a city, the conquering general and army would simply take what they desired from the vanquished, without direction from the king or emperor. In contrast, for the first time, Napoleon instituted a government-run, systematic plunder of Europe. In 1794, the Commission Temporaire des Arts established a subcommittee to compile lists of works of art in countries where the republican army was expected invade . Under Napoleon’s specific direction, his armies seized thousands of works of art throughout the countries he invaded. Therefore, under Napoleon, wartime art looting became a large-scale, state-sponsored, military activity perpetrated for ideological and other reasons.
The most well-known large-scale wartime art looting was perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II. However, during the reign of the Nazis, plunder became an entirely different and vastly more dangerous military policy . The Nazi plunder of cultural heritage began with the appropriation and destruction of “degenerate” art in Germany itself and eventually grew into a broad-scale looting operation throughout its many occupied territories. The Nazi art operation began with the seizure of Jewish property, as a component of the larger Nazi propaganda campaign against the Jews. Ultimately art thievery expanded to include any other works that Nazi officers, especially Hitler and Goering, desired—either for personal collections or for Hitler’s intended super-museum in Linz. Art was pillaged throughout the countries which Germany invaded and occupied, including Austria, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Ukraine and Italy.
As under Napoleon, Nazi art looting was state-sponsored, but the Nazis took it to an entirely new level. Seizure and confiscation activities were overseen by Alfred Rosenberg, the intellectual head of the Nazi party, and the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a special division of the Nazi forces charged with “one simple objective: the looting of Europe’s art”. In the judgment delivered at the Nuremberg Trials, it was declared that the Einsatzstab Rosenberg was “a project for the seizure of cultural treasures”. During the trial, Rosenberg was held responsible “for a system of organized plunder of both public and private property throughout the invaded countries of Europe” and was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Such a systematic, government perpetrated execution of art crime was unparalleled in the history of the world. Furthermore, the extent of the activities far surpassed any previous instances of wartime looting. Rosenberg himself aptly proclaimed the looting accomplished by the ERR as “the greatest art operation in history”. An examination of the monetary value of the art seized by the Nazi party proves that this claim was not empty boasting. Francis H. Taylor, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, estimated that the total value of all art looted by the Nazis to be $2-2.5 billion, an amount equivalent to $21.6-27 billion today.
What truly distinguished the Nazi art looting from any previous wartime art plunder, however, was the extent to which it was ethnically, religiously and racially motivated. The purposes of wartime art looting are nuanced and complex, and Nazi plunder must be understood as the result of a multiplicity of motivations—economic and political considerations played a role, but plunder was also perpetuated for vital ideological reasons. Looted art provided a continual source of nourishment for the Nazi war machine—art which was not desired for either the personal collections of Hitler and Goering or for the German museums was auctioned off to provide much needed funds. Political revenge also served as a major motivation for Nazi looting. In 1940, Goebbels initiated a project called “Repatriation of Cultural Goods from Enemy States” in order to seize all artwork of German origin or provenance taken from the country since 1500 (and particularly during the Napoleonic Wars). However, art looting by the Nazi party was primarily motivated by the ideology of Aryanism. Art seizures began as yet another way of denigrating the Jewish people and other societal groups deemed inferior by the Germans. The Nazis sought to glorify Germanic works of art and destroy “degenerate” ones. Perpetration of art looting became an extension of the larger Nazi program of ethnic, religious and racial cleansing, and in this way is completely unique from all other wartime art plunder which preceded it.
The emotional and economic devastation which resulted from the Nazi art looting program pervaded Europe in the years after the war. As the complexities of returning the collections of museums, palaces, churches and private collectors from across Europe came to light and with the condemnation of Rosenberg and other leading looters at the Nuremberg trials, the attention of the world became focused on the protection of cultural heritage. The Nazi art operation had shown the world how devastating the impact of art plunder perpetrated to promote ideologies of racial, ethnic and religious cleansing could be. As a result, on May 14, 1954, on the initiative of Italy, UNESCO called a Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict at The Hague which was attended by 86 nations. The nations of the convention declared that “damage to cultural property, belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind” and consequently that “it is important that this heritage should receive international protection” . All ratifying nations agreed in Article 4 Section 3 to “undertake to prohibit, prevent and if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property”. Unfortunately, the Hague Convention of 1954 did not prohibit further wartime art looting, as several recent instances demonstrate: the destruction of historic buildings in the Balkans during the 1990’s, the targeting of religious monuments by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and most recently the nation-wide looting of archaeological sites and museums in Iraq in 2003. Art crime of the post-cold war era combines “the cultural cleansing of World War II and the large-scale looting of the Cold War era”, a terrible combination which is demonstrated not only in the previously given examples but also in the devastating looting of Kuwait in 1991.
During the seven-month Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, the Kuwait National Museum and Dar al-Athat al-Islamiyya were pillaged in one of the greatest wartime art looting expeditions of the twentieth century. On the orders of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi army looted over 20,000 valuable artifacts which were removed to the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. The seized art was primarily from the Islamic Art Collection housed at the Dar al-Athat al-Islamiyya—an unparalleled collection of Islamic cultural heritage which was on permanent loan to the museum from Sheik Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al Sabah and his wife Sheika Hussah Sabah al-Salim al-Sabah. The Iraqi army did not constrain itself to looting art. During the occupation, the army also seized important archives from the foreign ministry, the prime minister’s office and other government departments. Nor did Hussein’s army limit its activities to looting. After the museums were thoroughly looted, they were torched during the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from Kuwait in March 1991. The armies not only set fire to the museum, but also gutted the interior of Parliament and burned the library at the Self-Receptor Palace as if they were a “medieval army which conquered, looted and then burned”. The Iraqi pillage of Kuwait thus included not only art, but was a complete and utter destruction of Kuwaiti cultural heritage.
In order to truly understand the significance of the looting of Kuwait, this event must be analyzed within the historical framework of wartime art looting as explicated in this paper. In many ways, the plunder of Kuwait follows in the long historical trajectory of conquerors that seized the property of subjugated nations. Until very recently, art and cultural relics were “widely accepted as ancillary prizes that rightfully fell to the victors of military conflicts”. Thus, looting under the Hussein regime evoked “the behavior of conquerors in earlier wars, including European monarchs and Napoleon”. Just as the Emperor Titus, Napoleon and so many other conquerors had paraded the cultural heritage of defeated nations into their cities as symbols of victory, Saddam Hussein embraced the stolen art as trophies of war. Technology brought the triumphal parades which had once graced the streets of Rome and Paris into the living rooms of the Iraqi people, as Hussein exhibited the collection stolen from the Kuwait National Museum on Iraqi television as “war booty” in September 1990. However, Iraqi wartime looting seems to exceed the bounds of this sort of traditional “law of nature” looting, where the strong exact what they will from the weak.
Rather, in its extent and in the ideological motivations driving the plunder, Iraqi wartime looting most closely recalls the looting by the Nazi party. Looting under the Hussein regime was both formally and ideologically similar to wartime art plunder by the Nazi party:
The systematic looting of public collections in Kuwait by Saddam’s bureaucrats had imperialistic overtones similar to the Nazis’ looting in Eastern Europe during World War II. . .special teams methodically inventoried and confiscated valuable historic, archival, scientific and reference collections in order to reduce the cultural patrimony of a conquered people and increase their own.
Hussein employed a similar system of methodic looting, perpetrated by special teams charged with the seizure of valuable cultural objects, just as the ERR had been under the Nazi regime. Most shockingly, however, for Hussein, just as it had been for the Nazis, the primary purpose of ransacking and ultimately razing Kuwait’s museums was to eliminate its cultural identity. For this reason, the Iraqi troops sought “to confiscate or destroy the cultural artifacts of Kuwait”. Thus, art looting was just one component of a “systematic effort to strip the nation of its very identity”. Hussein’s program of ethnic cleansing motivated the systematic looting of Kuwaiti heritage in an uncanny, uncomfortable resurgence of Nazi art plundering from the previous century. Consequently, the looting of Kuwait is important not only because of the extent of the plundering, but also because of the purposes behind it.
The ethnic, religious and racial cleansing which had motivated Nazi art looting, and which the nations of the world had so desperately sought to prevent in the future, returned in the terrifying cultural rape of Kuwait. Eighty-six nations ratified the Hague Convention of 1954 and thus resolved to protect the cultural heritage of the world from ever again falling victim to the wide-scale wartime plunder of the past several millennia. Yet, the systematic looting of Kuwait’s national heritage during the Iraqi occupation proves that despite this and other resolutions designed to protect cultural heritage, wartime looting is a clear and present danger. Like Hitler before him, Hussein attempted to use the pillage of cultural heritage to strip a nation and a people of its identity and ideals in order to further his program of ethnic cleansing. Yet today, this devastating, methodical destruction of Kuwaiti nationhood is all but forgotten. Thus, the looting of Kuwait’s cultural heritage offers a caveat to all peoples: the horrors of ideological wartime looting are not a ghost of the past; they are a threat of the present. For this reason, protection of cultural heritage must be a priority for all nations.
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