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The plundering of the Frankfurter Judengasse, 22 August 1614. Pluenderung der Judengasse 1614.png
The plundering of the Frankfurter Judengasse, 22 August 1614.

Looting is the act of stealing, or the taking of goods by force, in the midst of a military, political, or other social crisis, such as war, [1] natural disasters (where law and civil enforcement are temporarily ineffective), [2] or rioting. [3] The proceeds of all these activities can be described as booty, loot, plunder, spoils, or pillage. [4] [5]


During modern-day armed conflicts, pillaging is prohibited by international law, and constitutes a war crime. [6] [7]

After disasters

During a disaster, police and military forces are sometimes unable to prevent looting when they are overwhelmed by humanitarian or combat concerns, or they cannot be summoned because of damaged communications infrastructure. Especially during natural disasters, many civilians may find themselves forced to take what does not belong to them in order to survive. [8] How to respond to that and where the line between unnecessary "looting" and necessary "scavenging" lies are often dilemmas for governments. [9] [10] In other cases, looting may be tolerated or even encouraged by governments for political or other reasons, including religious, social or economic ones.


In armed conflict

The sacking and looting of Mechelen by Spanish troops led by the Duke of Alba, 2 October 1572. Spaanse Furie - De plundering van Mechelen door de hertog van Alba in 1572 (Frans Hogenberg).jpg
The sacking and looting of Mechelen by Spanish troops led by the Duke of Alba, 2 October 1572.

Looting by a victorious army during war has been common practice throughout recorded history. [11] Foot soldiers viewed plunder as a way to supplement an often-meagre income [12] and transferred wealth became part of the celebration of victory. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and particularly after World War II, norms against wartime plunder became widely accepted. [11]

In the upper ranks, the proud exhibition of the loot plundered formed an integral part of the typical Roman triumph, and Genghis Khan was not unusual in proclaiming that the greatest happiness was "to vanquish your enemies... to rob them of their wealth". [13]

In warfare in ancient times, the spoils of war included the defeated populations, which were often enslaved. Women and children might become absorbed into the victorious country's population, as concubines, eunuchs and slaves. [14] [15] In other pre-modern societies, objects made of precious metals were the preferred target of war looting, largely because of their ease of portability. In many cases, looting offered an opportunity to obtain treasures that otherwise would not have been obtainable. Since the 18th century, works of art have increasingly become a popular target. In the 1930s, and even more so during the World War II, Nazi Germany engaged in large-scale and organized looting of art and property, particularly in Nazi-occupied Poland. [16] [17]

Looting, combined with poor military discipline, has occasionally been an army's downfall[ citation needed ] since troops who have dispersed to ransack an area may become vulnerable to counter-attack. In other cases, for example, the Wahhabi sack of Karbala in 1801 or 1802, loot has contributed to further victories for an army. [18] Not all looters in wartime are conquerors; the looting of Vistula Land by the retreating Imperial Russian Army in 1915 [19] was among the factors sapping the loyalty of Poles to Russia. Local civilians can also take advantage of a breakdown of order to loot public and private property, as took place at the National Museum of Iraq in the course of the Iraq War in 2003. [20] Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy's novel War and Peace describes widespread looting by Moscow's citizens before Napoleon's troops entered the city in 1812, along with looting by French troops elsewhere.

In 1990 and 1991, during the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's soldiers caused significant damage to both Kuwaiti and Saudi infrastructure. They also stole from private companies and homes. [21] [22] In April 2003, looters broke into the National Museum of Iraq, and thousands of artefacts remain missing. [23] [24]

Syrian conservation sites and museums are looted during the Syrian Civil War, with items being sold on the international black market. [25] [26] Reports from 2012 suggested that the antiquities were being traded for weapons by the various combatants. [27] [28]

Prohibited under international law

Both customary international law and international treaties prohibit pillage in armed conflict. [6] The Lieber Code, the Brussels Declaration (1874) and the Oxford Manual have recognized the prohibition against pillage. [6] The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 (modified in 1954) obliges military forces not only to avoid the destruction of enemy property but also to provide for its protection. [29] Article 8 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court provides that in international warfare, the "pillaging a town or place, even when taken by assault," is a war crime. [6] In the aftermath of World War II, a number of war criminals were prosecuted for pillage. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (1993-2017) brought several prosecutions for pillage. [6]

The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 explicitly prohibits the looting of civilian property during wartime. [6] [30]

Theoretically, to prevent such looting, unclaimed property is moved to the custody of the Custodian of Enemy Property, to be handled until returned to its owners.

Archaeological removals

The term "looting" is also sometimes used to refer to antiquities being removed from countries by unauthorized people, either domestic people breaking the law seeking monetary gain or foreign nations, which are usually more interested in prestige or previously, "scientific discovery". An example might be the removal of the contents of Egyptian tombs that were transported to museums across the West. [31] Whether that constitutes "looting" is a debated point, with other parties pointing out that the Europeans were usually given permission of some sort, and many of the treasures would not have been discovered at all if the Europeans had not funded and organized the expeditions or digs that located them. Many such antiquities have already been returned to their country of origin voluntarily.

Looting of industry

In the aftermath of World War II]], Soviet forces systematically plundered the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, including the Recovered Territories, which later transferred to Poland. The Soviets sent valuable industrial equipment, infrastructure and whole factories to the Soviet Union. [32] [33] The Allies, without rail transport and blocked by the seas, were limited to pillaging high value German scientific and industrial technologies, such as rocketry and jet aircraft.

Many factories in the rebels' zone of Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War were reported as being plundered and their assets transferred abroad. [34] [35] Agricultural production and electronic power plants were also taken, to be sold elsewhere. [36] [37]

See also

Related Research Articles

Iraq Museum

The Iraq Museum is the national museum of Iraq, located in Baghdad. It is sometimes mistakenly called the National Museum of Iraq, a recent phenomenon influenced by other nations' naming of their national museums; but The Iraq Museum's name is inspired by the name of the British Museum. The Iraq Museum contains precious relics from the Mesopotamian, Persian and Islamic civilization. It was looted during and after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Despite international efforts, only some of the stolen artifacts have been returned. After being closed for many years while being refurbished, and rarely open for public viewing, the museum was officially reopened in February 2015.

Nazi plunder Nazi looting in WWII

Nazi plunder was the stealing of art and other items which occurred as a result of the organized looting of European countries during the time of the Third Reich by agents who acted on behalf of the ruling Nazi Party of Germany. The looting of Jewish property was a key part of the Holocaust. The plundering was carried out from 1933, beginning with the seizure of the property of German Jews, until the end of World War II, particularly by military units which were known as the Kunstschutz, although most of the plunder was acquired during the war. In addition to gold, silver and currency, cultural items of great significance were stolen, including paintings, ceramics, books and religious treasures.

Repatriation (cultural property) return of stolen art to the original owners or heirs

Repatriation is the return of cultural property, often referring to ancient or looted art, to their country of origin or former owners. The disputed cultural property items are physical artifacts of a group or society that were taken by another group, usually in an act of looting, whether in the context of imperialism, colonialism or war. The contested objects vary widely and include sculptures, paintings, monuments, objects such as tools or weapons for purposes of anthropological study, and human remains.

Archaeological looting in Iraq

Archaeological looting in Iraq took place since at least the late 19th century. The chaos following war provided the opportunity to pillage everything that was not nailed down. There were also attempts to protect the sites such as the period between April 8, 2003, when the staff vacated the National Museum of Iraq and April 16, 2003, when US forces arrived in sufficient numbers to "restore some semblance of order." Some 15,000 cultural artifacts disappeared in that time. Over the years approximately 14,800 were recovered from within and outside Iraq and taken under the protection of the Iraqi government.

American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP) was a not-for-profit organization formed in 2002 by a group of politically influential antiquities dealers, collectors and lawyers in the United States, with its headquarters in New York and representatives in Washington D.C.. The goal of the organization was described by Ashton Hawkins as "informing the public on arts issues." The organization is now defunct and its website (culturalpolicycouncil.org) has been removed from the web. Some of its members now actively take part in Cultural Policy Research Institute.

Matthew Bogdanos

Colonel Matthew Bogdanos is an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, author, and a colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserves. In 2003, while on active duty in the Marine Corps, he led an investigation into the looting of Iraq's National Museum, and was subsequently awarded the National Humanities Medal for his efforts. He had previously gained national attention for the prosecution of Sean Combs, who was acquitted of weapons and bribery charges in a 2001 trial stemming from a 1999 nightclub shootout.

Looted art Art that was taken illegally

Looted art has been a consequence of looting during war, natural disaster and riot for centuries. Looting of art, archaeology and other cultural property may be an opportunistic criminal act or may be a more organized case of unlawful or unethical pillage by the victor of a conflict. The term "looted art" reflects bias, and whether particular art has been taken legally or illegally is often the subject of conflicting laws and subjective interpretations of governments and people; use of the term "looted art" in reference to a particular art object implies that the art was taken illegally.

The antiquities trade is the exchange of antiquities and archaeological artifacts from around the world. This trade may be illicit or completely legal. The legal antiquities trade abides by national regulations, allowing for extraction of artifacts for scientific study whilst maintaining archaeological and anthropological context. The illicit antiquities trade involves non-scientific extraction that ignores the archaeological and anthropological context from the artifacts.

Mosul Museum National History Museum in Mosul, Iraq

The Mosul Museum is the second largest museum in Iraq after the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. It was heavily looted during the 2003 Iraq War. Founded in 1952, the museum consisted of a small hall until a new building was opened in 1972, containing ancient Assyrian artifacts. The museums net worth and content value are around 50 to 80 to 250 million according to museum specialists during 2013 at least. Dr. Hikmat Al-Aswad was the Director from 2004-2011. The current director is Zaid Ghazi Saadallah.

Beit Junblatt

Beit Junblatt is a historic mansion in Aleppo, Syria, built in the 16th century by a Kurdish emir of the Jumblatt family.

U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield

The U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield (USCBS), founded in 2006, is the United States national committee of the Blue Shield. The Blue Shield was formed according to the provisions of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which specifies a symbol of a blue shield for marking protected cultural property. The Blue Shield, of which USCBS is a member, is an organization of affiliated national committees from nations around the globe.

Deliberate destruction and theft of cultural heritage has been conducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria since 2014 in Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent in Libya. The destruction targets various places of worship under ISIL control and ancient historical artifacts. In Iraq, between the fall of Mosul in June 2014 and February 2015, ISIS had plundered and destroyed at least 28 historical religious buildings. Valuable items from some buildings were looted in order to smuggle and sell them to foreigners to finance the running of the Islamic State. By March 2019, ISIS lost most of its territory in the Middle East.

The Antiquities Coalition(AC) is a non-governmental organization working to stop the looting and trafficking of antiquities. It is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Archaeological looting

Archaeological looting is the illicit removal of artifacts from an archaeological site. Such looting is the major source of artifacts for the antiquities market. Looting typically involves either the illegal exportation of artifacts from their country of origin or the domestic distribution of looted goods. Looting has been linked to the economic and political stability of the possessing nation, with levels of looting increasing during times of crisis, but it has been known to occur during peacetimes and some looters take part in the practice as a means of income, referred to as subsistence looting. However, looting is also endemic in so-called "archaeological countries" like Italy, Greece, Turkey, Sicily, Cyprus and other areas of the Mediterranean Basin, as well as many areas of Africa, South East Asia and Central and South America, which have a rich heritage of archaeological sites, a large proportion of which are still unknown to formal archaeological science. Many countries have antique looting laws which state that the removal of the cultural object without formal permission is illegal and considered theft. Looting is not only illegal; the practice may also threaten access to cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is knowledge about a heritage that is passed down from generation to generation.

The Spoils of War (symposium)

"The Spoils of War—World War II and Its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property" was an international symposium held in New York City in 1995 to discuss the artworks, cultural property, and historic sites damaged, lost, and plundered as a result of World War II. The three-day event was sponsored by the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. The conference was organized by Elizabeth Simpson, an archaeologist and professor at the Bard Graduate Center.

Beit Achiqbash

Beit Achiqbash ; is an old Aleppine courtyard mansion built in the mid 18th Century by Qarah Ali (Karaly), a wealthy Christian merchant.

The Hermann Göring Collection, also known as the Kunstsammlung Hermann Göring, was an extensive private art collection of Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, formed for the most part by looting of Jewish property in Nazi-occupied areas between 1936 and 1945.

Blood antiquities Archaeological artefacts looted during conflict

Blood antiquities are archaeological artefacts that have been plundered during conflicts and have been used to fund these wars. The looting of archaeological sites and the illicit trafficking of cultural property is, and has been, a common practice for terrorist groups in war zones. The pieces mostly end up on the black market, art galleries and antique shops in Europe and North America, or in millionaire private collections. The looting of blood antiquities especially affects the Middle East, because it is a very conflictive area and at the same time with a great density of archaeological sites.


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