Looting has accompanied warfare for many reasons. During antiquity, conquering armies often returned home with sculptures or precious objects from the lands they had invaded. Their loot—known as spolia—was a symbol of victory. A relief on the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum depicts Roman soldiers carrying away loot from the Temple of Jerusalem.
An organized looting campaign also accompanied the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century. Napoleon’s forces brought masterpieces of European painting and sculpture to Paris from the lands they conquered. After Napoleon’s defeat, terms of the Treaty of Vienna in 1815 required many of these art works to be restituted to their former owners. In 1907 delegates at the Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land drew up the first international laws banning the looting and unnecessary destruction of art and cultural property during times of war. The treaty explicitly states that “all necessary steps must be taken to spare…buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments [and] hospitals” and additionally, that is “is especially forbidden…to destroy or seize the enemy’s property.” (Section II, Chapter I, Articles 23 and 27).
Nevertheless, Nazi Germany—what we might today call a “rogue nation”—chose to ignore international laws pertaining to human rights and property. In 1938, five years after assuming power in Germany, Hitler commenced a massive looting campaign. The previous year, he had ordered the removal of modern art from Germany’s state-run museums. Many of these modern works—which Hitler termed “degenerate”—ended up in the United States, including a painting and a sculpture on the museum’s tour. Nazi looting particularly targeted Jewish art collectors and gallery owners, not just in Germany, but in all nations occupied by the Nazis. So many art works were displaced that the Allied forces developed a large-scale restitution program at the end of the war. However, after the end of the Cold War, it became apparent that many looted works had, nevertheless, made their way into the art market and thence to museum collections around the world.
Museums are now engaged in research programs to identify examples of looted art in their collections and to work on restituting objects to claimants when necessary. The research of provenance (an object’s ownership history), however, greatly increases our knowledge of art objects, whether a problematic past is discovered or not. It is unlikely that the stories told in the self-guided tour would have been uncovered had it not been for the museum’s provenance research project, yet they add immensely to our appreciation and understanding of these works’ cultural and social roles throughout history.
I hope that visitors who participate in the “Spoils of War” self-guided tour or attend related events will gain an increased understanding of the role played by art in World War II. Likewise, I hope that this program raises awareness of the continuing problem of looting and the destruction of artistic and cultural heritage in war zones around the world today.
Class of 1949 Curator of Western Art after 1800