Friday 22 April 2011

Looted Art, the never-ending story

Josh Rothman in the Boston Globe summarises a recent article ('Art in the Time of War') by British historian Richard J. Evans in The National Interest on the looting and destruction of art down through the ages from late antiquity through Napoleon and the Nazis, up to modern Iraq and Egypt. Twentieth -century warfare has led to the wholesale destruction of cities and the collections they contained by bombing and shelling.
The Nazis looted art on a massive scale never before seen in history, and squabbled among themselves over the gems of Europe's museums and private collections. There was so much stolen art that it was often treated carelessly -- the German governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, had to be reprimanded by a Nazi art historian "for hanging a painting by Leonardo da Vinci above a radiator". A surprisingly large amount of the art displaced by the World Wars has been returned, not necessarily to its owners, but at least to its country of origin.
Evans notes, the looting and destruction of art continues with every new conflict, as we saw in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with its shocking images of the looting and destruction of the museum and library collections there. He quotes the journalist Robert Fisk, who wrote, in his forward to The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq:
I was among the first to enter the looted Baghdad archaeological museum, crunching my way through piles of smashed Babylonian pots and broken Greek statues. I watched the Islamic library of Baghdad consumed by fire -- 14th and 15th century Korans embraced by flames so bright that it hurt my eyes to look into the inferno. And I have spent days trudging through the looters’ pits and tunnels of Samaria, vast cities dug up, their precious remains smashed open -- thousands upon thousands of magnificent clay jars, their necks as graceful as a heron’s, all broken open for gold or hurled to one side as the hunters burrowed ever deeper for ever older treasures.

The looting of art continues apace; if it's no longer motivated by nationalist fervor, it's still driven by personal greed. By 2005, four thousand of the 15,000 artworks looted from the Baghdad Museum in 2003 had been found. A thousand were found in the United States, and 600 in Italy. Many of them, Evans writes, were "pillaged by order from private collectors and their agents".

Of course antiquity collectors and their "agents" (antiquity dealers) bend over backwards to deny that they are in any way responsible for the existence of an antiquities market. It stands to reason that all those Mesopotamian bits of carved stone and impressed clay tablets cannot be selling themselves.

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