Sunday, 20 September 2009





Perhaps the best known of all the images that show the looting of artistic property is the relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome that depicts soldiers carrying the great menorah  from the Second Temple in Jerusalem, seized when the Roman army captured the city and destroyed the building in 70 a.d. Its precious ornaments were paraded in an imperial Triumph that emphasised the utter subjection of the Jews. Doubtless after that these were melted down as a contribution to the imperial treasury. Just suppose, however, that by some chance the great seven-branched candlestick survived, and was now dug up at some archaeological site in Italy. Who would have the best claim to it? The modern state of Israel, seeing itself as the legitimate successor, even after nearly two millennia, of the nation that Titus destroyed, would doubtless make a claim. But modern Italians might also think that the object was part of the long history of their nation.


The current agitation about the ‘restitution’ of artistic treasures of all kinds to their original locations is usually presented as overdue justice for faults committed by European colonialism. In fact, this is a serious over-simplification. Conquering armies have always regarded works of art as legitimate spoil. Swedish collections, for instance, are rich in objects from the collection of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolph II, taken during the Thirty Years War. These, however, were not generally the work of Czech artists, but the possessions of an alien court that had based itself for a while in Prague. The modern Czech Republic does not pine for them too much, even when there is proof that they were actually created in Bohemia.


Modern attitudes to the legitimate or illegitimate possession of famous art-works can be traced to the European Enlightenment that blossomed in the late 18th century, and in particular to the impact made by Enlightenment ideas on the men of the French Revolution.


It was Enlightenment thinking that gave those in charge of the Revolutionary government the idea of creating a great museum, open to all, in the Louvre. This was inaugurated in August 1793, and soon came into possession of masterpieces seized in the Low Countries during the campaigns of 1794, and it Italy in 1796. There was always disagreement about the moral justification for these seizures. In October 1796, for example, a number of eminent French artists, among them Isabey, Gérard, Horace Vernet and the great flower-painter Redouté, signed a petition asserting that the best place for the artistic treasures found in Rome was no longer Italy but France: “The French Republic, because of its strength, its intellectual superiority and the superiority of its artists, is the only place in the world that can give a real home to these masterpieces.”[1] Others were not so certain. Another petition submitted to the government queried this policy: “Citizen Directors…we beg you to consider maturely this important question: whether it is useful to France, and advantageous to artists and art in general, to displace from Rome the monuments of antiquity and the masterpieces of painting and sculpture which make up the galleries and museums in this capital of the arts…”[2] Why not, they asked, study instead the ruins of Provence, where the Venus of Arles had recently been found?


The seizures nevertheless went ahead, and in July 1798 there was a public festival in Paris when the treasures taken from all over Italy were paraded through Paris mounted on twenty-nine triumphal cars. The horses from the Basilica of San Marco [originally loot from Byzantium, seized by the Venetians during the Crusader sack of the city in 1204] were on view, as were the Dying Gaul, the Apollo Belvedere, Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’ and paintings by Titian and Veronese. Intermingled with the cars bearing the precious works of art were various exotic animals, dromedaries from Africa and bears from Switzerland. When the procession finally halted at the Champ-de -Mars an official speech of welcome was made, thanking the Goddess of Liberty, “that avenger of the long-humiliated arts, who has broken the chains that hampered the renown of so many of the celebrated dead.”[3]


One of the signatories the petition protesting against the looting of Italian art treasures by the forces of the new French Republic was Dominique-Vivant Denon [1747-1825]. Originally a diplomat, who served the Ancien Régime in St Petersburg and later in Naples, Denon became one of the major functionaries of the Napoleonic Empire. His close association with the Emperor began when he accompanied Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798. Later he was the Director of the great and ephemeral Musée Napoléon created in the Louvre, as well as being the Emperor's general Director of the Arts.


He is a significant figure in all of these three roles. The French Egyptian campaign was responsible for the first thorough, scholarly exploration of a non-European civilisation by European savants, and the first attempt to assimilate elements of that civilisation into European culture. It is worth contrasting the attitudes of the scholars who accompanied the French army to Egypt with those of the 16th century Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and Peru. The few objects the conquerors saved from the wreck of the Aztec and Inca empires they pulled down were regarded in Europe merely as incomprehensible curiosities, of no artistic value. In 1798 the attitude was quite different. The great 'Description of Egypt' [1809-1828] published in twelve huge, superbly illustrated volumes by Denon and his team, was an attempt to explore every aspect of the country, but particularly its pharaonic antiquities. In the introductory essay, Egypt was presented as the true birthplace of the arts.


One result of Napoleon's expedition was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Found by French soldiers in 1799 at the town of Rosetta [Rashid] in the Egyptian Delta, it was seized when the army Napoleon had abandoned in Egypt was forced to surrender to the British, and is now in the British Museum. Carved under the Ptolemies in 196 b.c., the slab carries an inscription in two languages, Greek and Egyptian, using three scripts - Greek,  Egyptian demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphic. Thanks to the fact that the texts parallel one another, it proved possible to decipher the hieroglyphic pictograms that had hitherto resisted interpretation. This triumph of scholarship took place only after the fall of Napoleon, but was due to a French Egyptologist,, Jean-Francois Champollion [1790-1832]. His linguistic discoveries unlocked the whole story of Ancient Egypt, and immensely enlarged the perspective of human history. The publication of Champollion's results was arguably the decisive step away from a completely eurocentric view of world events, even more so than the publication of the 'Description of Egypt'. The Ancient Egyptians, thanks to a French interpreter, could now speak for themselves.


Today, the Rosetta Stone is being insistently reclaimed by the contemporary Egyptian government. It is nevertheless possible to say, as this brief account shows, that it actually has more significance in terms of recent cultural developments in Europe than in those of what has happened in Egypt itself during the past two millennia.


Denon, meanwhile, as director of the Musée Napoléon, completed reversed his attitudes about the looting of art-works from the territories his master had conquered. In a few brief years he built up the most comprehensive collection of masterpieces the world had ever seen. He might even have succeeded in preserving it more or less intact but for Napoleon's escape from Elba. The dismantling of the vast array of masterworks Denon built up was triggered, not by Napoleon's original fall but by the 100 Days, an episode the victorious allies were determined to punish.


While most of the looted works were returned to their original possessors, some were not. One that remained behind in Paris was Veronese's 'Marriage Feast at Cana', taken from the Refectory of S. Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. The excuse for failing to return it was that the canas was too vast to travel safely. It had already had to be cut in half in order to bring it to Paris. A painting by the French artist Charles Le Brun was sent to Venice instead.


Another celebrated painting that failed to go back to its original home was Velasquez's 'The Water Seller of Seville'. Found rolled up in the abandoned carriage of Joseph Bonaparte after the battle of Vitoria [1813], it was given by the restored Bourbons to the British victor, the Duke of Wellington. It now hangs in Apsley House.


Perhaps the most famous - some would say most notorious - act of transference [or looting] during the Napoleonic period was nothing to do with imperial conquests. It was the arrival of the so-called Elgin Marbles in Britain. These were removed from the Parthenon in 1806, under the terms of a firman obtained by Lord Elgin from the Ottoman government, The contemporary Greek claim to the sculptures of the Parthenon is deeply felt, and public opinion seems now to be swinging to the Greek view of the question. However the matter is a little more complicated than it seems at first.


The Parthenon, used as a powder magazine by the Turks, was ruined in 1687 when Athens was besieged by a Venetian army under Francesco Morosini [1618-1694].. The building received a direct hit from the besiegers' artillery and blew up. After Morosini had captured the Acropolis, he decided to take the sculptures from the west pediment back to Venice, but the cables broke and the sculptures were shattered. One fragment that escaped the general wreck was the head of the figure of Iris, messenger of the gods. This was rescued by Morosini's secretary, disappeared for a while [through being built into a Venetian garden wall] and, after passing through the hands of two early 19th century collectors is now in the Louvre. It is probably the best-preserved of all the Parthenon sculptures. Other fragments from the Parthenon exist in the Louvre and in other, non-British, collections.


If Morosini had carried off the pediment sculptures, as he intended, they would now almost certainly be housed in the archaeological museum in Venice, which is the one of the oldest public collections of its sort in the world. Athens would have about as much chance of getting them back as Istanbul has of reclaiming the bronze horses from San Marco.


Though both sides in the debate about the Parthenon sculptures attempt to couch their arguments in rational terms, it is clear that reason has little to do with the matter. When Morosini besieged Athens, the Greek nation did not exist. The same situation prevailed when Elgin obtained his firman. Though the Greek authorities sometimes speak of reuniting the marbles with the building they were made for, not simply of reuniting the sculptures themselves, this can never in fact take place, given both the condition of the building itself and the horrible pollution of modern Athens. If the sculptures go back to Greece, they will have to be housed in a new museum, close to the ruins of the Parthenon but not part of them. The Pasok government, led by Costas Simitis, was busy building just such a museum before the recent Greek elections, and it was clear that Pasok thought of the triumphant return of the Marbles as something that might keep them in power. They failed to get them, lost the contest and work on the project has been halted, on the grounds that a major archaeological site was being destroyed.


The Parthenon Marbles are, nevertheless, an immensely potent symbol of modern Greek nationhood, intimately part of the national psyche. In particular, they have come to symbolise the determination of the Greeks to re-knit their links with the remote classical past - with Greece not only before the Ottoman conquests but even before the Romans. This is, paradoxically, a sentiment with which the Lord Elgin himself might well have sympathised.  His interest in the sculptures was linked to the conviction, increasingly prevalent in Europe in the opening decades of the 19th century, that Greece must be rescued from the Turkish yoke. He was, after all, a contemporary of Byron, who nevertheless made vicious fun of him, mocking his syphilitic nose and adding, for good measure:

     Let Aberdeen and Elgin still pursue

The Shade of fame through regions of virtu;

Waste useless thousands on their Phidean freaks;

Misshapen monuments and maim'd antiques;

And make their grand saloons a general mart

For all the mutilated blocks of art.[4]


Yet Byron's words are significant in a sense other than the one he intended. They point, though inadvertently, to the revolution in taste which the marbles presence in London brought about, accompanied by a revolution in scholarship - a much clearer understanding of the evolution of the classical style. This evolution also owed its impetus to the education based on classical texts that every cultivated person then received.


This broad significance , paradoxically enough, is one of the reasons why they should go back to Athens, without further carping. The legalities cited by both sides are essentially irrelevant. No doubt many of the same points could be made about another set of major Greek sculptures that now resides in a European museum - the reliefs from the Great Altar of Pergamon now in Berlin. Pergamon is now Turkish and the Turks do not regard classical art and its development as an essential part of their history. Greece is right to feel that  revived nationhood needs ad deserves this symbolic focus, after so many centuries of humiliation.


The debate about the Marbles can still, despite all this, be usefully referred to the Enlightenment ideas I have already cited. The notion of the universal museum, open to all, embracing [eventually] all human cultures, was a British, not a French invention. The key date is the foundation of the British Museum in 1753, which marks the transition from the hugger-mugger accumulations of princely wunderkammers to the idea of a collection of artworks and other objects as an instrument of rational enquiry. When, for example, we speak of the European interest in 'primitive' or tribal art, we need to remember that the first specimens of this kind of to enter European collections were not African, but the Maori artefacts and sculptures from Oceania brought back to Europe by Captain Cook. The first exhibition of Maori work was held in 1803, in the Museum's South Sea Room. Today twenty-eight of the Maori items in the Museum's collection can be traced to Cook's three voyages of exploration between 1768 and 1780. These items are older than almost any Maori items that survive elsewhere, even in New Zealand itself. To think of them as items of loot, unjustly wrenched from the hands of their original possessors, is to do Cook and his contemporaries a serious injustice. Without Cook's intervention, these objects would almost certainly not have survived until the present day


The depredations committed during a series of 19th century colonial wars are now the chief focus of today's restitutionists, as are the large-scale and often fairly brutal archaeological excavations conducted at non-European sites. Among these were Belzoni's digs in Egypt, Layard's at Nineveh, and Schliemann's at Troy [the modern Hissarlik]. Schliemann displayed an unscrupulousness that was fairly typical of many of his archaeological confrères at that time. The firman he obtained from the Ottoman authorities in 1871 stated that any treasure found must be divided with the Turkish government. Two years later Schliemann found the so-called 'Gold of Troy' and promptly smuggled it out of the country. At the end of World War II the Trojan booty was seized in Berlin by the victorious Russian army. It is now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. There seems little hope that it will ever return to its place of origin and contemporary Turks do not in any case regard it as part of their own history, any more than they think of the Pergamon sculptures in that context.


Another smuggled object of major importance remains in Berlin - the famous portrait bust of Nefertiti, found in 1912 by a German archaeological expedition working at Tell-el-Amarna. The contract signed with he Egyptian authorities stated clearly that all finds must be equally divided and that unique objects must remain in the country. The bust was nevertheless sent to Germany, disguised as a box of broken pottery. Here the case for restitution is perfectly clear, and it is surprising that the Egyptian government has not pursued it more vigorously. It is equally surprising that these stories, which are well-known and well-documented, arouse much less emotion than the conduct of the European powers in Africa.


Where wars are concerned, the attention of modern moralists has been directed largely to the behaviour of the European colonial powers in Africa, for example to the booty taken as a result of the British conquests of Kumasi [1874] and Benin [1897].


Until very recently, less attention was paid to the sack, in 1860, of the Summer Palace near Beijing by an Anglo-French expeditionary force. However in 2000 there was uproar at a Christie's auction held in Hong Kong, when two bronze fountainheads representing a monkey and an ox were put up for sale. They brought over a million US dollars each and their appearance evoked vigorous protests from the official Chinese Cultural Relics Bureau. There was also a noisy demonstration at the hotel were the auction took place. A Christie's spokesperson retorted that both items has been seen at auction before - the monkey in New York in 1987, the ox in London in 1989, and that the auction house was in any case only acting as an agent for the actual vendors. "When we undertake to sell property we do so with the understanding that owners have good title under international laws. We always support the claims of rightful owners through due legal process," she said.[5] This, like legalistic arguments about the Parthenon Marbles, was beside the point. The protest, like the agitation about the Marbles, arose from a sense of cultural humiliation - rage and shame triggered by what happened to the great civilisation of China from the mid 19th century until well past the middle of the 20th.


The international laws the spokesperson for Christie's was referring to were largely constructed during the course of the very 19th century which perpetrated so many unlawful seizures. Particularly relevant  is the Declaration of Brussels on the Customs of War, signed by fifteen nations, including Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Turkey. Its provisions were further codified in the Hague Conventions on Laws and Customs of War on Land, signed in 1899 and 1907. These specified that the property of religious, charitable and educational institutions, as well as of those dedicated to art and science "shall be treated as private property" - i.e. should be exempt from expropriation by the victor in any conflict. In the colonial period these provisions, in non-European contexts, were often honoured more in the breach than the observance.


However, recent disputes abut the fate and ownership of important cultural artefacts have started to focus on things which the advocates of wholesale restitution find it uncomfortable to contemplate. One is that objects regarded as sacred in a particular context - Maori art and Native American artworks come to mind - are often regarded as tapu or taboo, not for contemplation or handling by those outside the ethnic group. To restore these to their original context is also an act of deprivation. They are removed from the sphere of general accessibility and therefore from the sphere of universal knowledge.


Another objection to restitution is quite simply that it sometimes seems likely to place irreplaceable works of art in a situation of physical threat. The fate of the national museums in Kabul, under the Taleban, and in Baghdad, after the American conquest, are sufficient warning.


The conclusion may be that when we talk about the looting of cultural objects we may in fact be working within the wrong framework, both intellectually and emotionally. Disputes about what should live where and what belongs to whom tend to focus, as I have tried to demonstrate here, not on the 'masterpieces' themselves, but on people's feelings about them. We are, for example, almost at the point, technologically, where it would be possible to make perfect facsimiles of the Parthenon sculptures - without even having to make casts. Through the use of lasers, minutely faithful reproduction is possible, without the need for physical contact. Would a set of perfect copies satisfy the Greek government and public? Of course not. Like the rest of us, contemporary Greeks have been imbued with a notion of 'originality' that is a purely western, post-Renaissance invention. The spread of this idea to cultures other than our own can even be thought of as part of the history of colonialism. It has no real place in the history of Chinese art, for example.


At the same time, there are already an increasing number of situations where the actual originals are not shown. In Vienna, the Albertina has long displayed its incomparable collection of Dürer drawings only in the form of collotype reproductions. The cave at Lascaux is closed to the public, because the Palaeolithic paintings were being irreparably damaged by the presence of too many visitors. Go there and all you will see are facsimiles. There is even talk of creating a faux version of Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, in order to preserve the original.


In other words, all the clamour about physical possession may just be so much self-indulgence. Our real duty may be to the simple physical survival of the masterpiece, even if this means living at arms length from it.



[1] Jean Chatelain, Dominique Vivant-Denon et le Louvre de Napoléon, Perrin, Paris, 199, note 20, p.359.

[2] ibid., p.75.

[3] Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Histoire de la société française pendant la Directoire, nouvelle édition, Paris, Fasquelle, 1909, p. 283.

[4] Byron, English Bards and Scots Reviewers, 1809.

[5] 'Stolen' Chinese Art Causes Furor, by Michelle Dennehy, Auction Watch,

2 May 2000, reproduced at


This site was last updated 20-09-2009