Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rolled over Europe conquering nations and people. In the wake of panzers came art specialists to identify and remove the greatest works in the subjugated territories. The film Monuments Men, based on Robert Edsel’s book, depicts the Allied effort to thwart Hitler’s looting of art and artifacts. The Nazis followed in the footsteps of conquerors from the Roman Sulla to Napoleon, but antiquities theft also occurs in peacetime. In fact, the news is full of stories at the moment. It was discovered German art dealer Hildebrant Gurlitt’s son had hidden thousands of art pieces stolen by the Nazis. A fisherman in Gaza found an ancient bronze statue of Apollo, but it was confiscated by Hamas and put on eBay. Art dealer Subhash Kapoor was arrested for a massive antiquities smuggling ring that has ensnared famous museums around the world. Last week, the FBI raided the home of an elderly collector in Indiana searching for illicit artifacts and human remains. Today art and artifacts are stolen not only during conflict, but on a daily basis in impoverished countries as part of an illicit trade worth billions of dollars. Crimes against cultural heritage repeat over and over, raising the question: Why do things of little intrinsic value hold so much sway over us? Why steal art?
A clue lies in the Nazis’ actions at the end of the war. Ominously, art and antiquities were included in Hitler’s Nero Decree, ordering their destruction; if the art would not be seen in the Führermuseum then it would never be seen again. This was not simple vindictiveness on Hitler’s part according to George Clooney’s character Frank Stokes, the film’s protagonist, but a concerted effort to continue reshaping Europe. He says, “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they will still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it is as if they never existed. That is what Hitler wants and that is exactly what we are fighting for.” Art is culture manifested, a physical representation of a society’s historical narrative and ideals. Hitler wished to gain legitimacy and prestige through a show of power over the cultures that created these masterpieces. For imperial museums like Louis XIV’s Louvre, the Popes’ Vatican Museum, and the British Museum, displaying another’s greatest works in the empire’s capital was the ultimate demonstration of dominance. While museums are centers of education and research today, their foundations were expressions of political power. In war art theft is about destruction of another’s identity and in peace it is about showing control over another; both are about power.
I recently investigated the illicit antiquities trade and published the findings in the International Journal of Cultural Property. There is currently an exodus of illicit antiquities from conflict areas and impoverished regions to wealthy countries. It is paid for by collectors in major Western cities and it pays for weapons in Syria, is taxed by the Taliban, funds ISIS, and includes organized crime.
The social impact is catastrophic, as artifacts provide evidence of the historical narratives offer cultural legitimacy and drive social cohesion. Cultural geographer Derek Alderman uses the terms “symbolic domination” and “symbolic annihilation” to explain the absence of slavery in some Southern museums, which instead portray the pre-Civil War South as a pastoral utopia. If you remove the physical objects that serve as evidence for a cultural narrative, then becomes possible to rewrite history through omission- an act of symbolic domination. It is hardly surprising in periods of identity change the politicians and generals (either defending the status quo or driving the narrative shift) have major collections, such as Israeli generals after formation of the state, Pakistan’s current generals, ISIS in Syria and Iraq, as well as Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali before their ouster.
Artifacts’ esteem, and therefore market value, is a product of its significance to the culture of origin, not its intrinsic value. (Think about that for a moment. If someone steals your car, they get a rate based on its condition and performance. They don’t get a rate based on how important that car is to you and your family.) This is why scholars argue ownership of illicit artifacts is a colonial era vestige tied to dominance of other cultures. It is during the Colonial Period that collecting foreign cultures’ antiquities became popular among the upper class and the concept of the Gentleman Collector appears. Ownership was meant to demonstrate the prestige of the collector and it fit with the period’s European race views. Culturally important objects became status symbols not based intrinsic value, but its cultural importance to foreigners. Artifacts included African votive statues, Native American medicine bundles, South Asian idols, and even the Elgin Marbles. Unfortunately, the Gentleman Collector is still a theme among some collectors today that trying to convey their wealth and prestige through art stolen from others. Ownership of stolen antiquities is neither art appreciation nor the actions of cultured individual. Rather, it is exploitation of another culture and people. In contrast, the Good Collector is one that promotes the culture behind art, knowledge over aesthetics, and refuses to buy artifacts that lack proper records.
One of the most moving scenes in Monuments Men comes in the beginning. It depicts the aftermath of a bombing campaign in Italy. Dirty and exhausted civilians work frantically to dig through rubble in what one imagines is a search for survivors. As the camera pans viewers see it is actually a frenzied effort to reinforce Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, a near casualty of the war. Civilians who saved masterpieces during the war also contended with destroyed homes, burying loved ones, and worrying where the next meal would come from, yet their energies were focused on objects of little intrinsic value that were centuries old. This psychological element to art can be easily overlooked. It is not an overstatement to say that artifacts are the embodiment of a culture and people. As a result, antiquities are often politicized, as seen by the toppling of Lenin statues during the Ukrainian revolt, Mali Islamists burning shrines in Timbuktu, ISIS’ destruction of temples and shrines, and the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Artifacts’ existence creates legitimacy, which is why China is constructing research vessels to find archaeological sites off contested islands to prove their territorial claims. Art is the material objects that tie our immaterial identities together.
As young man Hitler was a painter, but by the 1930s his interest in art was not that of a connoisseur- it was about power. As dictators have found for centuries, art is means of control. As George Clooney’s character suggests in the film, Hitler was interested in making people disappear, both physically and symbolically. The brilliance of the real Monuments men and women was to save antiquities and return them to their rightful communities. There is now a global movement to repatriate stolen art and artifacts that includes many U.S. museums. However, Hitler learned that if you control a culture’s past then you can rewrite their future; for this reason those thirsty for power will continue to steal art.
You can visit IllicitAntiquities.com to find out more about stolen art.