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July 23, 2011

Annika Kuhn on “The Looting of Cultural Property: A View from Classical Antiquity”

Update: This post has been republished with corrections.

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Annika B. Kuhn, currently a Fellow of the Mercator Kolleg on International Affairs (German Academic Foundation / Federal Foreign Office), conducting research on the illicit trafficking and repatriation of antiquities, presented “The Looting of Cultural Property: A View from Classical Antiquity” at ARCA’s Third International Art Crime Conference in Amelia on July 9, 2011.

Dr. Kuhn, who holds a PhD in Ancient History from the University of Oxford, discussed how the destruction and pillage of cultural property in times of war and peace reach far back in history to the Greek and Roman periods. She selected several historical examples and examined the different forms of ancient responses to the loss of significant religious and cultural artifacts, which ranged from the diplomatic negotiation of returns, the repatriation of looted property as symbolic political acts, or the restoration of the religious and cultural order by the use of replicas.

Dr Kuhn referred to cases of plunder during the Persian Wars (e.g. Xerxes’ looting of the statue group of the Tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton after the sack of Athens in 480 BCE), the capture of war booty by Roman generals and soldiers, which was displayed in the triumphal parades at Rome, as well as excessive art thefts committed by provincial governors and emperors. Thus, the Sicilian governor C. Verres, one of the earliest art thieves, conducted “forced sales” in the province and used slaves to rob residences and temples in a systematic theft of art. Verres looted statues, furniture, vases, jewelry, carpets and paintings from sites throughout Sicily. The Julio-Claudian emperors Caligula (37-41 CE) and Nero (54-68 CE) were art thieves on the throne and plundered statues to decorate the rooms of their palaces. However, Greek and Roman contemporaries not only criticized the plunder of art, but actively tried to protect or recover commemorative artifacts, and there are already antecedents of the ‘codification’ of norms to respect the inviolability of religious and cultural sites and prohibit the illicit appropriation of art.