February 21, 2023

A History of Looting

Tianna Mobley interviewed me last week for an episode of her sparking podcast series on lost histories of the Atlantic world. We talked about the destruction caused by looting and the illicit antiquities trade (subject of my 2004 book Stealing History) in Latin America, from colonial times to the present, and the contrasting value of archaeology in telling the ancient world’s stories. Knowing the past isn’t easy; looting makes it harder.

We also talked about how the distinction between colonial looting of the Napoleon and Elgin variety and modern, commercial looting of the kind I explore in Stealing History has been blurred, if not erased, in light of Russia’s wholesale demolition of Ukraine’s cultural assets. Russia’s widely reported theft of treasures from Ukrainian museums and churches recalls the long history of plunder for national prestige, and yet a lot of those holdings are almost certain to wind up on the illicit trade in art and antiquities. The distinction (which I discussed a while back in the Washington Post in an article that I’ll try to dig up) between these two strands in the grand, shameful history of looting has been collapsed in Ukraine as never before. In this case at least, it has become a distinction without a difference.