Josh Rothman in the Boston Globe summarises the recent article ('Art in the Time of War') by British historian Richard J. Evans in The National Interest. This covers art-looting through the ages from ancient Byzantium, through Napoleon and the Nazis, up to modern Iraq and Egypt.
Evans begins in antiquity, when the looting of art objects in war seemed perfectly natural -- just a way of showing that you'd won. The general assumption was that the victorious nation had proved its essential superiority, and would be better able to appreciate the art anyway. Thus, when Napoleon conquered Italy at the end of the eighteenth century, thousands of artworks were brought to the Louvre "in a Roman-style triumphal procession, accompanied by banners that read: 'Greece relinquished them, Rome lost them, their fate has changed twice, it will never change again.'" (The loot included artworks which had, in turn, been looted by the Italians from all over Europe; included in the haul were "live camels and lions, and the entire papal archive.")
At Napoleon's defeat, cooler heads prevailed: Wellington insisted on returning stolen artworks to their original owners, and, in the American Civil War, the Union Army adopted an official policy of leaving art alone, putting museums and libraries in the same class as hospitals.
These enlightened policies however were swept away by the increased firepower and savagery of twentieth-century warfare which 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."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.
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.
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."
Photo: Looted art in WW2: Image Caption: American soldiers look at a piece of Nazi-looted art by the impressionist painter Edouard Manet (Keystone)