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Cultural Heritage Looting : For Glory, Beauty, Science and Wealth

For Glory, Beauty, Science and Wealth

Of all the ways humans are able to bond their past, present, and future, a common ground is found in most cultural groups: sharing stories and knowledge through oral, written, or performative acts, erecting buildings and transforming them into monuments infused by memories, crafting and transmitting objects and artifacts, honoring the Dead and their corpses. These practices, which build symbolic and emotional continuity between generations, are observed in communities throughout history and across continents. From the Pyramids of Egypt, the Andean Mummies, to the Roman Catacombs, from the Ballynoe Stone Circle in Ireland, the Chichen Itza, to the Moai on Easter Island: monumental sites are made to honor what has been.

Transmission of knowledge and memories is the foundation of cultural groups. What can be transmitted, whether through an object, a song, a weapon, or a giant building, falls under what we understand today as Cultural Heritage. French professor of Heritage and Law, Pierre-Laurent Frier defines Cultural Heritage as all the elements of human activity that a given group of people consider central to its identity and collective memory and that it wishes to preserve and transmit to future generations (Frier, 1997). In this view, also advanced by the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and successive international conventions (Hershkovitch, 2018), we can hold that cultural objects "constitute the heritage of one's own culture". In a way, cultural heritage is the materialization of a cultural group, as well as a testimony of its relationship to the world.

Fig. 1 - The Plunder of the Kaiserbagh [Qaisarbagh], (W.H. Russell, 1860)

The connection between a culture and its creations has been well understood. The appropriation and destruction of objects, buildings, and sacred places is a practice that has been carried out without much trouble for several millennia. In 1625, Hugo Grotius codified the practices of war and included the "right to ravage and plunder what belongs to the enemy" as well as "the right to appropriate what has been taken from the enemy" (Grotius, 1625). In the warring European continent, these practices of appropriation and pillaging are part of a long tradition of warfare and domination of the enemy. The extraction and deprivation of objects of a cultural, sacred, or symbolic nature are an instrument of domination. To ensure the subjugation of a region, the victors would humiliate a culture by uprooting its productions and displaying them in the capital (Gacon, 2015).

Fig. 2 - Le Petit journal, (Nov. 26, 1892).

Habits of eurocentrism shaded with racism paved the way for a large-scale appropriation of patrimony during the colonial period - objects were destined to fill European museums and collections. This pillage was carried out by the military, missionaries, scientists, and merchants, thus a global market for looted, appropriated, and exchanged goods flourished.

The global market for cultural heritage is still active today. It relies on looters and smugglers in war-torn regions and accommodating political figures. However, the international community is trying to prevent such activities. In 1970, the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO which "provides an international framework for the prevention of theft and looting and the return and restitution of stolen cultural property, in parallel with other advances in the fight against illicit trafficking." (UNESCO, 1970). The looting and reselling of cultural artifacts has grown exponentially, and this is an increasingly profitable global market. From the looting of a pharaoh’s tombs to the trafficking of the ancient city of Palmyra by ISIS (between 2012 and 2016), art collectors around the world are fueled by a destructive illegal industry, especially since collections are primarily used nowadays as a means of creating high-return investment assets - the richer the history that the object carries, the more details or fantasies, the higher the price.

Fig. 3 - Aftermath of the Benin Punitive Expedition, ( R. Granville, 1897)

In conclusion, the attachment to one's heritage is not necessarily a natural phenomenon, it is a consequence of a Western process of patrimonialization of objects, which occurred at the same time as the construction of large museums in Europe (Savoy, 2020). Museums and collections are ideas that are nowadays shared all over the world, but they are not an obvious form of heritage either. They are the products of European relationships and reflections a development of a eurocentric archive of memory, cultural symbols, and art. Current policies are reflecting this approach to heritage with a mixed model of preservation and monetization. The issues of returns and restitution, which are going to be explored in this 101 series, have been around for some time but are only recently gaining attention. The recognition of the legitimacy of return claims illustrates a shift in international cultural policies towards a fair share of heritage. It is important to keep in mind though that sensitivity about looted and displaced heritage, and in particular about its return, is constantly shifting and evolving.


Gacon, S. (2015). De Napoléon à Hitler: les enjeux d’un pillage artistique de l’Europe. Textes et Contextes, 10. URL:

Grotius, H., & Tuck, R. (2005). The Rights of War and Peace (Natural Law and Enlightenment Classics) (New Edition). Liberty Fund.

Frier, P. L. (1997). Droit du patrimoine culturel (Droit fondamental) (French Edition) (1re ed). Presses universitaires de France.

Hershkovitch, C. (2018). La restitution des biens culturels. Ethnologies, 39(1), 103‑121.

Savoy. B. (Mar. 6, 2020), De grands musées vides. French. Conference at the Collège de France. URL:

UNESCO (Nov. 14, 1970). Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. URL:

Myrath Initiative - Virtual Archeological Museum of Palmyra. URL:


Cover Picture - Unknown (XVIIth Century), Conquista de México por Cortés - (Conquest of Mexico by Cortés), Jay I. Kislak Collection via Wikimedia Commons.

Fig. 1 - Russell, W. H. (1860), The Plunder of the Kaiserbagh, My Diary in India, vol. 1. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Fig. 2 - Le Petit journal (1892, 26, November), Au Dahomey - Les fétiches de Kana - Le dieu de la guerre. Via Gallica.

Fig. 3 - Granville, R. (Feb. 9-18, 1897), Interior of Oba's compound burnt during siege of Benin City (present-day Nigeria), with bronze plaques in the foreground and three British soldiers of the Benin Punitive Expedition. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Author Photo

Gabriel FR

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