By Leanne Ogasawara –
A glance at Hobson-Jobson, the historical dictionary of Anglo-Indian words in use during the British rule in India, will show that the word “loot” comes into English from Hindi, ultimately deriving from Sanskrit. It entered the English language around the time of the Opium Wars, when the British were not just in India but also in China. This was when the 8th Earl of Elgin, James Bruce, was present at the sacking of the Summer Palace in Beijing. He was, incidentally, the son of the 7th Lord Elgin who removed the marbles from the Parthenon. James Bruce had this to say about loot:
There is a word called loot, which gives unfortunately a venial character to what would in common English be styled robbery.
Robbery or loot? Isn’t it all the same?
This winter, I took a postgraduate class at Stanford called Plundered Art: The History and Ethics of Art Collection. From Nebuchadnezzar, Nero and Napoleon to the Nazis and the present, we examined specific historic cases of art plundering and considered the ethics of such collections in museums to the present day as well as collecting in itself. The course explored a tangled tale of aggressive collecting, fueled by nationalism and colonialism—not to mention greed. In some cases, aggressors like Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon rationalized the plundering of Jerusalem as tribute. While looting has gone on from the beginning of human history, in the last century it has festered as one more legacy of colonialism, a transgression lurking under the surface of many of the great art palaces of the world.
The Met. The British Museum. The Louvre. Where did all that stuff come from anyway?
I vividly recall my first visit to the Met when I was seventeen. Entering the old Sackler Wing, my best friend Guita, who had spent previous summer in Cairo, led me toward the Dendur Temple. I was stunned to see the fully reconstructed sandstone edifice, surrounded by snowfall seen through high glass walls. How did it get there?
The temple’s provenance was pure: it had been a gift to the United States from the Egyptian Government. Guita and I also studied the Euphronios Krater. Its murkier history never crossed my mind. Nevertheless, my interest in the history of looted art began that winter day in New York City.
In the last ten years, we are seeing more and more large museums embroiled in high-profile restitution requests. The Euphronios Krater, for example, has since been returned to Italy.
Why not to Greece where it was made?
The museums have not acceded quietly. The British were first to go on the offensive, labeling art reclamation demands as nationalist.
Sharon Waxman, in her book Loot, describes similar rhetoric being employed by former Met director Philippe de Montebello in April 2007 at the opening of the Leon Levy and Shelby White Greek and Roman Hall, a soaring new space built to house many of the museum’s antiquities and to honor two of its greatest patrons. She writes:
“Mounting the podium, de Montebello didn’t waste a minute. “A flurry of newspaper articles of late have been “suggesting not if but when will museums be returning antiquities from their collections,” he began in a decisive tone, dispensing with small talk, warm-up humor, or even just “Good evening.” “It is as if antiquities are no longer the patrimony of all mankind, but of someone else’s particular heritage,” he stated. “Those same people might rue the outcome of pushing this argument ad absurdum—if museums were emptied of their artifacts.”
He then reminded the guests that “museums were born of the Enlightenment, of humanist principles that exalted human understanding and knowledge, the notion that museums should house the essence of all human civilization and achievement for the purpose of study and greater human progress. He used noble words—and angry ones. “The new chauvinism does a great disservice to mankind,” he observed.
These large and comprehensive collections have been characterized as encyclopedic. With a stated mission of research and education, such collections aimed to tell the story of art history for all humankind. To have representative masterpieces from around the world not only allows for cross-cultural research but also is a safety net for national museums anywhere in the world that suffer disaster. There will always be representative masterpieces in the Louvre.
While there is value of having cross-cultural collections, to describe the victims of art plunder as “nationalistic” takes some cheek, since most of the controversial pieces were plundered in actions fueled by nationalism and colonialism in the first place.
Nationalism and greed are often behind a failure of due diligence. Sins of omission are sins of commission in my book. Especially today, when trade in illegal antiquities goes hand-in-hand with arms and drug smuggling. Dr. Brian Daniels, National Vice President in Cultural Heritage for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), explained to our class how looted art is just one more form of money laundering; also working at that moment to save Ukraine’s cultural heritage an museum collections from Russian theft or destruction (note Russian museums similarly acquired art from their “liberation” of Berlin in 1945). Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, which I wrote about in these pages in 2019, could be another case in point.
During the recent Stanford course, I thought repeatedly of a particular National Treasure in Japan. In the vast number of objects that come from other countries in the museums of the world, a percentage of those are masterpieces. Only a small fraction of these are designated as national treasures. The implication is that the nation’s government and people are putting resources behind the object’s protection, preservation, and study.
In Japan, a National Treasure (国宝, kokuhō) is designated cultural property, as determined by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (a special body of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). These objects carry tremendous prestige, attracting large crowds to every viewing opportunity and subjects of countless books and documentaries.
Of the eight teabowls registered as National Treasures in Japan, the Kizaemon is considered by tea practitioners to be greatest work of all. A masterpiece.
It is Japan’s Mona Lisa.
And yet, it was not made in Japan.
I remember the day I first saw a copy of the Kizaemon during my tea ceremony lessons. Focused on the intricate rules I had yet to master, I hadn’t looked at the bowl until the end of the practice, during the ritual appreciation of the tea utensils. At this stage my teacher would walk us through the points, or “places to appreciate” of each utensil.
I felt my head spinning. To call it a humble rice bowl would have been an understatement, for the teabowl was completely lopsided! Misshapen in the kiln, it stood up straight and steady enough, but the walls were warped. It had a lovely high foot, but numerous cracks and holes in the cheap glaze exposed the dark clay beneath. And to make matters worse, the bowl was ridged with ringed indentations from the potter’s wheel—there was nothing smooth or fine, no evidence of technical mastery.
I was trying so hard to delight in all things Japanese. But this ugly bowl?
The Kizaemon was first “discovered” by the Shogun’s army during an invasion of Korea, launched by the late 16thcentury shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi. It was probably just an old rice bowl in a peasant’s house. But the shogun’s soldiers had been given strict instructions: bring home anything of beauty you find in your plundering. And this bowl fit the bill perfectly. It’s rustic simplicity and humble appearance embodied that supreme principle of Japanese tea ceremony aesthetics, that of wabi-sabi, which usually means “an acceptance of beauty in something that is transient and imperfect”.
And so, this bowl made its way back to Japan – changing hands for greater and greater sums of money until it became priceless – a “treasure of the nation.”
Years later, I would finally get to see the real bowl, in a big exhibition of National Treasure ceramics held at the Tokyo National Museum (see first image above). As I inched my way closer to it, the crowds became dense and a great hush descended. Some people were crying. As it came into view, I felt its tremendous charisma. I was gobsmacked.
And what a rags-to-riches story.
There would never be a lawsuit over this heirloom since the bowl in Korea was worthless. But in Japan it had become a glittering superstar.
Something similar can be seen in the great dragon jars of Borneo. Originally created in faraway lands—mostly in the kilns of Southern China but some in Vietnam or the Philippines, they were just humble jars for holding water or rice on boat trips—cheap, everyday objects to the Chinese. But when the Dayak “discovered” them, they went out of their minds, even attributing to them magical powers. During the White Rajah days, crimes were paid for in jars considered the most valuable things owned by the Dayak.
The same thing happened in Japan during the 16th century with bowls from China and Korea. They were technically superior to anything available in the country at the time, and the tea masters found their rustic simplicity deeply appealing.
These are unique cases, however—since usually plundered objects are of supreme value in the country of origin, explaining why they were plundered in the first place, and why so much effort is spent securing their return.
Context is key, and both domestic criminal import/export law and the international legal framework is of limited usefulness. This is especially true of the antiquities that entered museum and private collections before the laws governing their export went into effect. And so, again and again we fall back on ethical notions.
I can imagine a future legal framework that could be created, maybe patterned on international just war/war crimes laws, whereby particularly egregious transgressions could be heard and litigated in a place like the Hague. But only a very comprehensive convention would cover the myriad cases—otherwise we would be heading into rough waters. Pretty much every case is unique.
For example, does cultural continuity and associated rights require DNA-verified ancestry? There is strong cultural, language, and ancestral continuity between modern Greece and the creators of the so-called Elgin Marbles, likely better named as the Parthenon Marbles. On the other hand, other than the Copts most of modern Egypt does not have a direct ancestral lineage to the pharaonic past. But then again, the pyramids are still standing along the Nile bereft of their treasures just like the Parthenon is waiting on the acropolis for its missing statues.
Cultural context is not identical to place and terroir but the terms have much overlap. In a fantastic debate I watched on the BBC called “Intelligence Squared”, former MP Andrew George alongside actor, writer and broadcaster Stephen Fry debated the pro side for sending the Parthenon Marbles back to Greece. On the negative side of this argument were historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto and Tristam Hunt, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. The latter debaters were worried about the slippery slope. That is, would sending the marbles back commit them to also returning the Rosetta Stone.
While the two cases are very different, both revolve around the significance of a single piece of art. The marbles must be viewed as being one piece of art.
Another crucial factor is how the artifacts were extracted from their countries of origin. Starting with Lord Byron, people have debated for almost two centuries about whether Lord Elgin was allowed under the laws of the time to take the bronzes. In this case the laws were those of the Ottoman occupiers, not the Greeks themselves, and the “sale” of the marbles by one colonial empire to another does not pass the smell test. Greece was not only being oppressed but the oppressor was giving all their stuff away.
How much worse is the case of the Benin Bronzes, then? The British carted off significant cultural heritage andrazed the ancient city. But the bronzes are multiple objects of a type and have been scattered around the world. We even have a number here in Los Angeles. If many of the museums returned the bronzes, the set would still be split, like many great collections.
The Elgin Marbles, however, are a single piece of art.
Christopher Hitchens wrote a short but very penetrating book on the marbles in which he argues for their return to Greece. He says, about his book in Vanity Fair:
I’ve written a whole book about this controversy and won’t oppress you with all the details, but would just make this one point. If the Mona Lisa had been sawed in two during the Napoleonic Wars and the separated halves had been acquired by different museums in, say, St. Petersburg and Lisbon, would there not be a general wish to see what they might look like if re-united? If you think my analogy is overdrawn, consider this: the body of the goddess Iris is at present in London, while her head is in Athens. The front part of the torso of Poseidon is in London, and the rear part is in Athens. And so on. This is grotesque.
I recently wrote an essay about the number of important artifacts looted from Borneo in the last several decades. Journalist Carl Hoffman has two excellent books about the “tribal art market”, which is huge! In the cases he documents, it is the village people themselves who willingly sell treasure for needed cash. One priceless statue now in Dallas was purchased for the cost of a much-needed generator. Recent acquisitions like this would be covered by existing laws. But many entered collections long before the home countries’ laws were established. Exit the contentious realm of law into the murky sphere of ethics.
Traveling in Torajah Land in central Sulawesi twenty some years ago, I was surprised to see that the funeral customs, practiced by the people there for centuries, had been altered because of looting. More and more looters were arriving from Java after Western buyers began to pay huge sums of money for the effigies made to honor the dead.
In Tana Toraja, the funeral customs are very elaborate, but also culturally important to the people there. With the removal of the effigies, this connection to the dead is severed.
Public museums embody some of the best of Enlightenment philosophy but some of the worst as well –the claim of responsible custodianship is a step away from social Darwinism. The Western world is not an ironclad harbor of stability, and this rationalization rings false, especially in the present day.
While we cannot judge people in the past by the moral standards of today, we can do the right thing under our current standards. We can start with the Golden Rule.
It is a shame that diplomacy is a dying art and that the foreign service corps has been diminished globally, especially notable in the U.S. in the last administration. But this is where we must start. National pride and history are bound up with national art treasures. We must acknowledge and rectify past abuses. There is a balance that can be struck between the value of the great encyclopedic museums and the rights of the countries of origin. Travelling exhibits, cooperative stewardship, and sharing of collections are all tools museums already use to expand beyond the reach of their permanent collections. They can become tools to right the wrongs of the past, allowing art to have place of pride in their homelands. Perhaps the next generation will fight that good fight.
One final word should be said for the objects themselves.
This is, after all, also a story of the objects. And how their value is fundamentally changed when removed from context. In the case of the Korean teabowl, what was a quotidian object was transformed into a masterpiece not by appreciation of its art or the skills embodied in its technology but solely by perception. In the vast majority of cases, this is not so. The Mona Lisa sits in a place of honor in Louvre. Indeed, it is her castle. But what of the gigantic painting that stands directly opposite? How much better to be able to see Veronese’s Wedding at Cana in the place for which it is created: the San Giorgio Monastery, Venice.
Like culture itself, art is created and generated in situ. This is why seeing the works of Piero della Francesca on the famous Piero trail in Tuscany or seeing Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan brings people to tears.
Of course, one can be moved by art in a museum. But nothing is as powerful as to see a masterpiece in the place for which it was imagined and created: to see it in its full power with its cultural context intact. There are certain particularly significant works of art that stand as symbolic of culture and place—and so their return is not just the right thing to do for the aggrieved but for us all.
Sharon Waxman. Loot: The Battle Over Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World. Times Books, 2009
Barnaby Phillips. Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes. Oneworld, 2021.
Cynthia Saltzman. Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
Theodore Vrettos. The Elgin Affair: The True Story of the Greatest Theft in History. Arcade, 2011.
Christopher Hitchens. The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification. Verso, 2008.
Carl Hoffman. Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, and Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art. William Morrow, 2014.
Carl Hoffman. The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure. Mariner, 2018.
Meredith Mendelsohn. “How the Met Convinced the U.S. Government That the Temple of Dendur Belonged in New York.” Artsy.net. April 26, 2017 https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-2-000-year-old-egyptian-temple-ended-manhattan.
BBC Intelligence 2: Send Them Back: The Parthenon Marbles Should Be Returned to Athens
Karl E. Meyer and Sharon Blair Brysac. China Collectors. Amazon Audible Studios, 2015.
James Cuno. Whose Culture? Princeton, 2012.
Michael Gross. Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum. Crown, 2010.
Jason Felch, Ralph Frammolino. Chasing Aphrodite. Mariner, 2011.
More posts on art: How Should We Think About Bamiyan?
and Falling in Love with a Beautiful Bronze
Digital Reconstruction of Bezeklik by Ryokoku (Japanese researchers)–if you can find a copy see my Digital Bezeklik in Kyoto Journal’s Silk Road Special Issue!