Historical Precedent to Wartime Art Looting by ISIS

Terrorist group is plundering historical sites—but there is long history of such theft.

June 19, 2017 5:00 am
Exploring the History of Wartime Looting
Inside another destroyed church of the Karemlesh village on 28 October 2016. Karemlesh village was liberated three days ago by Iraqi and NPU (Ninevah Plain Unit). The situation in the Christian villages of Karemlesh and Bakhdida (Qaraqosh) is dramatic as the destruction by collision forces bombing and islamists looting is universal. The villages are not yet accessible to the people as there are in these dozen bombs, shells and trapped points by the fighters of ISIS. (Joseph Galanakis/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

History will show this as a chaotic time in the art and antiquities trade, one rife with plunder.

Last month, RCL reported on a pair of antiquities dealers—based in New York and Switzerland—who have been under investigation by international authorities for allegedly selling art plundered by ISIS. While no charges have been brought against the dealers, one thing from the story is clear: The source of ancient artifacts has become highly dubious in recent years.

The reason? ISIS, who has been occupying sections of Iraq and Syria for years now, have been both plundering ancient sites in the countries and using the proceeds to fund international terror attacks—and just laying waste to them.

But as the Wall Street Journal explains, while not condoning ISIS’ acts, there is historical precedent for what they’re doing. “In ancient times, it was a given that no victory was complete without the final humiliation of cultural destruction,” writes the Journal‘s Amanda Foreman. “In a show of power, the enemy’s temples, art, and monuments had to be publicly despoiled.”

But as time wore on, certain artifacts like those with religious value were seen as “off-limits to invaders.”

Decades later in 1863, a lawyer named Francis Lieber worked with Abraham Lincoln’s White House on “a military code of conduct for the Union armies,” protecting sites like museums and churches from looting.

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