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‘Monuments Men’ highlights WWII looting, but stealing culture has been around for ages

Melissa Byrnes, assistant professor of history at Southwestern, helped put the practice of looting art into perspective with a piece that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman April 6, 2014:

George Clooney’s latest movie, “The Monuments Men,” takes viewers on a beautifully filmed journey through Europe in the last years of the Second World War. The plot follows a group of western Allied soldiers charged with saving the masterworks of European civilization from the retreating Nazis — and the advancing Soviets. Where, though, did this fascination with cultural heritage begin?

Cultural artifacts have long been seized as prizes for military victory. This tradition can be traced back to the myth of the Golden Fleece, stolen by Jason and his Argonauts. The celebratory stone tablet of Naram-Sim was seized by the Elamites around 1250 B.C., later claimed by 19th-century French excavators and now sits in the Louvre. Homer recounts the Greek sacking of Troy, while the Bible tells of Nebuchadnezzar raiding the Temple of Solomon.

The Romans had a voracious appetite for cultural acquisition. Victory parades marched artworks through Rome along with prisoners as signs of military and political triumph. The Romans captured massive amounts of Greek art, sacked Jerusalem, and were some of the first to abscond with Egyptian artifacts. Entire obelisks were shipped back to Rome, symbolizing both the Roman fascination with Egypt as a great civilization and Roman imperial dominance over their Egyptian province.

Centuries later, the Crusades offered new access to fabulous riches. The infamous Fourth Crusade never reached the Holy Land. Instead, crusaders plundered the Christian capital of Constantinople in their desire to claim the wealth and artistic heritage of Byzantium. The most famous theft from this period was that of four bronze horses, which the Venetians brought back to install in the façade of San Marco’s Basilica.

But the man who truly made an art out of art theft was Napoleon Bonaparte, who enlisted archaeologists and other scholars to join his campaigns across Europe, down the Italian peninsula, and especially into Egypt.

Read more here.