June 27, 2006

Iraq & Afghanistan’s looted culture

Posted at 9:37 pm in Similar cases

Illegal acquisitions of artefacts have always been happening – nowadays there are many laws & treaties in place that intent to prevent such acts occurring. Recent experiences in Iraq & Afghanistan suggest that unfortunately a thriving international market in looted artefacts still exists.

BBC News

Spoils of war
By Lisa Jardine

The theft of art during war has always taken place, says Lisa Jardine. But the recent plundering of historic remains in Iraq and Afghanistan threatens the permanent loss of the record of ancient civilisations.

I went to look at a painting at Christie’s on Monday, by the early-20th-Century Austrian artist Egon Schiele. Wilted Sunflowers is a largish landscape – about a metre square.

In the foreground are half-a-dozen tall, withered sunflower stems, silhouetted against distant, daisy-covered hills. Framed by dying leaves, the blackened sunflower heads droop heavily.

Behind them the autumnal air is pale, and a white sun struggles through a wall of grey-brown mist. Painted in 1914, the work is considered to be a sombre homage to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. It hints at decay, and the looming loss and destruction of the first world war.

This is a melancholy painting with a dark history. In the 1930s it belonged to the collector Karl Grünwald, a Viennese art and antiques dealer. During the First World War Grünwald and Schiele had served in the army together, and Grünwald, recognising the younger man’s artistic talents, lobbied successfully to have him appointed as a war artist, rather than being sent to the front. Schiele died of influenza in 1918.

In 1938, the year Hitler annexed Austria, Grünwald fled to Paris. His finest art-works were packed up to follow him, but they were intercepted in Strasbourg and auctioned off by the Nazis in 1942.


Grünwald himself survived, but his wife and a daughter died in a concentration camp. After the war, first Karl Grünwald and then his son devoted much time, money and energy to searching for the stolen art works, with small success.

Then, a year ago, Wilted Sunflowers resurfaced in France. On Tuesday, the painting was sold to an anonymous buyer for an astounding £11.8m, the money going to Grünwald’s heirs, closing a sombre chapter in the family’s history.

War and the pillaging of art and antiquities have always gone hand in hand. The callous accumulation by the Nazis of looted fine-art, in the form of personal possessions seized from Jews, many of whom were rounded up and sent to the gas chambers, is a shameful story of our time.

But it is only one of the most recent and high-profile historical examples of the glories of a nation taken by force by its invaders.

The treaty of Campo Formio, signed in October 1797, marked the successful conclusion to Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaigns in Italy and the end of the first phase of the Napoleonic Wars.

As imperial victor, Napoleon considered himself entitled to strip all his conquered Italian territories of their cultural and artistic treasures. “Rome is no longer in Rome,” he is said to have announced exultantly. “The whole of Rome is in Paris.”

The following year, Napoleon brought his trophies triumphantly back to France. A spectacular cavalcade wound its way through the streets of Paris, while crowds lined the route.

Treasure laden

Antique statuary including the great marble figure of the priest Laocoon (struggling with sea-snakes) and the majestic Roman Apollo Belvedere, with famous paintings by Raphaël, Titian and Tintoretto, all crammed into huge packing cases, were carried into the city on horse-drawn carts.

To add to the sense of occasion, there were also animals from Napoleon’s African campaign – a caged lion and a pair of dromedaries. But the parade’s centre-piece was a cart bearing – unwrapped and on display – the four huge, antique, gilded bronze horses, which for 600 years had stood high above the great central door of St Mark’s basilica in Venice.

In 1808 those Venetian horses provided the crowning glory for the Triumphal Arch erected by Napoleon in the Place du Carrousel, just in front of the Louvre. Today that arch still presides magnificently over one end of a nine-kilometre-long grand vista, running through the Place de La Concorde, and the length of the Champs-Elysée, down to the Arc de Triomphe.

The traffic in priceless antiquities, from defenceless to more powerful nations continues today. Only today the perpetrators of the destruction of a nation’s ancient heritage may well be its own people, enticed into selling off their patrimony to the highest bidder, out of the simple need to survive.

Plundering the vanquished, sacking conquered cities, and other such acts of war-related pillaging have occurred throughout history. Till now, though, they have followed a kind of inexorable logic.

With the ebb and flow of empires, significant items stolen from one nation have been returned, or moved on, as new players enter the imperial scene. The bronze horses Napoleon removed from St Mark’s basilica and took to Paris, had themselves been looted by Crusaders and brought to Venice after the sack of Constantinople 600 years earlier.


And in 1815, as Napoleon’s power waned and he tried to curry favour with the Italians, he returned the horses to Venice, replacing them on the Carrousel arch with casts of the originals.

There is something much more brutally nihilistic about today’s cultural theft.

The succession of wars in modern Afghanistan has made its ancient archaeological sites acutely vulnerable to plunder, for objects to sell on the international black market.

The squandering of Afghanistan’s heritage began under the Taliban, when mujahideen soldiers systematically ransacked the National Museum in Kabul, passing its contents on – often to order – to dealers in Pakistan and elsewhere.

What is now reaching the West from Afghanistan, however, is not museum exhibits, but recently excavated archaeological treasures. Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan has become a grave-robber’s paradise. The country’s more than 3,000 historical sites are being systematically plundered.

Experts estimate that there is not an ancient site left in the whole country that has not been partly or fully looted, with the contraband antiquities going to London, Tokyo and New York.

Lost civilisations

As Afghanistan struggles to restore internal order and security, its rich, ancient past is seeping away, like sand between the fingers. As a Unesco spokesman puts it: “To Afghan farmers, digging up antiquities is the same as digging up potatoes” – you harvest what you can, so that your family can eat.

Earlier this year it was reported that almost four tons of illegally acquired ancient Afghan artefacts had been seized here in Britain. They included ceramics, stone sculptures, Buddhist statues, bronze weapons and coins, dating back to the third century BC.

At present these are stored for safety at the British Museum while discussions take place between the Foreign Office and the Afghan government over what to do with them.

Following the invasion of Iraq, the world watched in horror as the National Museum in Baghdad – left vulnerable and unguarded – was ransacked by looters, who removed any artefact that could be carried away, and destroyed or damaged many more in situ.

American troops posted to protect the nearby Oil Ministry and its documents – judged crucial for the functioning of Iraq’s oil industry – did nothing.

What is now Iraq was once the cradle of civilisation. The astonishing remains of its ancient peoples are an important part of our western civilisation. Amid the disorder of war they became the West’s responsibility. How could we have failed to protect Iraq’s unique and precious cultural heritage?

Some commodities on which the West depends, which are currently being rapidly depleted by uncontrolled western consumption, may, over time, be replaced. By the time readily accessible sources of affordable oil have been exhausted, economic necessity will surely have driven the developed world to discover some viable alternative.

Schiele’s Wilted Sunflowers, although lost for 70 years, was eventually recovered. The same cannot be said of the archaeological treasures currently pouring out of sites across Iraq and Afghanistan.

The precious remains of peoples and practices long gone, some of which have survived for more than two millennia, are being removed undocumented from unexcavated sites, dispersed and squandered. Once plundered, they are lost for ever from history. And with them vanishes the collective memory of a whole civilisation.

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