Looting is often regarded as an unfortunate side-effect of armed conflict and environmental disaster, but it can cause extensive damage in its own right. History has many examples of victorious armies removing the cultural property of the enemy they have just defeated as the ‘spoils of war’, which is known today as pillage (that is, looting by armies, rather than looting by civilians). At one time, it was common practice for armies to pay their troops in this way. One of the oldest examples is from the 8th century BC, recording how Tiglath-Pileser III, an Assyrian King, took the statues of gods from enemy cities (seen on this relief in the British Museum).

After the Second World War, during which there was well documented appropriation of cultural property by forces on all sides, the 1954 Hague Convention was established. Since that time there has been little systematic removal of cultural property by victorious countries during international conflicts. The situation is not as clear, however, in the case of conflicts within countries or those waged by armed non-state actors (ANSAs). Unfortunately, souvenir and trophy collection are still frequently a characteristic of troops and other individuals returning from conflict.  However, looting – whether from museums, libraries, archives, or archaeological sites – is more likely to be carried out by civilians: it can completely destroy them. Following conflict or environmental disaster, a breakdown in social order, the absence of effective law enforcement agencies, and/or unemployment and economic hardship, can all cause people to turn to theft and looting. Sometimes this is done on an individual ad hoc basis; at other times it can become part of deliberate, systemic, and sometimes targeted, looting by organised criminal organisations feeding the illicit international art market, and using the money to support organised crime. In Iraq in 2003, 15000 objects were stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad, and one Iraqi expert estimated that 60% of the sites in Southern Iraq were looted in the years following the Coalition invasion. This is, of course, frequently catastrophic for the study of the past. Allowing such looting to continue can also affect mission success for the armed forces, as there is increasing evidence (see link below) that at least some of the profits of such looting are invested in the continuation of the conflict (and see this factsheet by the Antiquities Coalition on what the money can buy). Such looting, either after armed conflict or environmental disaster, also undermines the future opportunities for cultural tourism to contribute to longer-term economic stability. However, a lack of awareness of relevant legislation in organisations such as a national police force, or in the customs and border forces, can also contribute to damage during conflict as key legislation that might deter illegal activities is not enforced.

Mitigation: Awareness raising must be conducted among locals who loot sites, those who purchase antiquities (tourists and dealers), armed forces who may be offered looted “souvenirs”, and police, borders, and customs forces. Many countries now insist on stringent searches of the baggage of both military and civilian personnel returning from deployment. It is also essential for organisations such as national police forces, and borders and customs agencies, to receive training in relevant legislation and in identifying illicit antiquities during peacetime. For example, the Hobby Lobby group were fined $3Million USD for purchasing cuneiform tablets that had been smuggled from Iraq, imported as “Bathroom tiles”. In addition, the problems of illicit trafficking cross borders and nations; what begins in a country in conflict can quickly move across the world, requiring Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) and bilateral agreements for countries to cooperate in targeting those involved in multi-national operations, as well as training for international organisations like Interpol. Work by Dr Neil Brodie and also by Dr Katie Paul has established the internet is becoming an important tool for the sale of illicit antiquities, making greater regulation of online sales important.

Photo: German loot stored in church at Ellingen, Germany found by troops of the U.S. Third Army.24 April 1945
National Archives and Records Administration, RG-111-SC-204899, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Learn more about the laws preventing looting and illicit trafficking of antiquities in our Law Library

Visit our Document Library to learn more about looting and illicit trafficking of antiquities

See this awareness raising pack for tourists created by the Antiquities Coalition