We Value Your Privacy

This site uses cookies to improve user experience. By continuing to browse, you accept the use of cookies and other technologies.


The Long and Tangled History Behind 5 Looted Historical Artifacts

Many of them have yet to be returned to their countries of origin.

fragments of 5 statues from the Elgin Marbles collection
  • camera-icon
  • The Elgin Marbles.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“The looting of cultural heritage has been happening since the very existence of cultural heritage,” said Molly Fannon, the Director of the Office of International Relations for the Smithsonian Institution, in an interview with the World Customs Organization. “It’s not anything new.”

Yet awareness and criticism of this sort of looting seems to be growing in recent years. One need look no further than the numerous jokes that can be found online about the artifacts acquired under perhaps less-than-scrupulous conditions by the British Museum to see a changing attitude about the provenance of cultural artifacts, and who they rightfully belong to.

As Molly Fannon says, such looting is nothing new. It has been going on since the dawn of civilization, with victors in conflicts often carting off the cultural artifacts of the conquered. While discoveries such as the tomb of Tutankhamun are synonymous with this sort of archaeological pillaging, the fact is that prior, grave robbers had already made off with many of the contents of the Pharaohs' tombs even before Egypt first felt the tread of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.

It’s difficult to say which items were truly looted and which were acquired ethically. Laws change, after all, and are often made by the victors in conflicts, meaning that what was legally obtained and what was ethically obtained may be two very different things. Many of the artifacts which rest in museums today were taken during periods of European imperialism, when British, French, Spanish, and other nations came to distant shores as conquerors and colonizers. As such, it can sometimes be nearly impossible to say whether they were taken under the auspices of trade or oppression.

These 5 historical artifacts currently rest in museums or collections across Europe and the globe, but all of them were first taken from their places of origin, often under less than honest conditions. In many cases, the home countries of these priceless artifacts are still struggling to get them back, decades or even centuries later, while others have since been returned to their places of origin—or have been lost altogether.

The Horses of Saint Mark’s Were Stolen—and Stolen Again

photo of original horse statues inside the St Mark's Basilica
  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

A reminder that the looting of cultural artifacts is as old as time stands within the Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice, Italy. Four bronze horses that were once a part of a sculpture of a chariot, the statue known as the Horses of Saint Mark’s were once placed on the façade of the church, but have since been moved inside to protect them from air pollution. It is far from the first time they have moved, however.

No one knows how long ago the statues were carved, but by the time they arrived in Constantinople around 330 CE, they had already been taken from somewhere else, possibly Greece. They made their way to Saint Mark’s during the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 CE, but they didn’t stay. In 1797, soldiers under the command of Napoleon took the horses from the basilica and placed them atop the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where they remained until 1815 when, with the defeat of Napoleon, they were returned to the Basilica of Saint Mark, though they are still far from their previous home in what is now Istanbul.

Greece Demands the Return of the Elgin Marbles

part of the Elgin marbles, showing a statue of a man and 3 headless statues
  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This list could be nothing but items held by the British Museum, which perhaps more so than any other major institution has faced criticism of how it acquired a wide array of its treasures. Among the most famous and controversial of these are a collection of marble statues that were taken from the Parthenon in Athens around 1810. These were removed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who claimed that he had the permission of the Ottoman officials who ruled over Athens at the time. They were later sold to the British Museum for around £35,000, the equivalent of nearly $5 million today, under the conditions that they be kept together and called the “Elgin Marbles”. 

In the years since, however, many have called into question the veracity of Elgin’s claim that he actually had the right to remove the statues, and the governments of both Greece and Britain have engaged in frequent negotiations as Greece has demanded the return of these priceless cultural artifacts. As of this writing, however, they remain in the British Museum, where they draw numerous tourists every year.

What Will Become of the Bangwa Queen?

In 1990, a wooden sculpture from Cameroon sold at a Sotheby’s auction for a record-breaking $3.4 million, making it the most expensive piece of African artwork in the world at the time. However, it was far from the first time the sculpture known as the Bangwa Queen had made headlines. 

The precise provenance of the statue is unknown, but it came to Berlin’s Museum fur Volkerkunde sometime in the late 1890s. From there, it was purchased by an art dealer and then by the famed collector Helena Rubinstein in the 1930s. While it was in her collection, the Bangwa Queen was famously photographed by Man Ray. When Rubinstein’s collection of African and Oceanic art was sold in a Sotheby’s auction in 1966, the Bangwa Queen fetched $26,000. 

It was the Dapper Foundation which later paid the $3.4 million for the statue, and it went into the Musee Dapper in Paris until 2017, when the museum closed due to low attendance and high maintenance costs. Though the Dapper Foundation has said that the statue will continue to appear in exhibitions around the world, the Bangwa people of Cameroon have begun to demand the return of the figure, fearing that it may go to auction once again and potentially disappear.

Michaelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges Was Stolen Twice

photo of men working to recover the statue with ropes
  • camera-icon
  • Recovery of the statue from the Altaussee salt mine.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

While not as famous as some other works by the master sculptor, Michaelangelo’s sculpture of the Madonna with baby Jesus, often named for the city where it once made its home, has several marks of distinction. It was the first of Michaelangelo’s sculptures to leave Italy during his lifetime, when it was bought by merchants from Bruges in 1504. It also has a more unfortunate distinction of having been stolen from the Belgian city not once, but twice. 

The first theft occurred in 1794, when the forces of Napoleon occupied Bruges. The Madonna was taken from the Church of Our Lady and shipped to Paris, where it stayed until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Though it made its way back to the church, however, its return wasn’t permanent. In 1944, as the Nazis were being driven back by Allied forces, they took the Madonna of Bruges with them. For a time, the piece seemed lost, but it was eventually discovered in a mine in Austria, along with many other cultural treasures taken by the Nazis, and returned to the church, an act dramatized in the 2014 film The Monuments Men.

Douglas Latchford and the Wholesale Pillaging of Cambodia

Beginning in the 1970s, a man sometimes called “Dynamite” Doug Latchford became one of the leading suppliers of Cambodia antiquities all over the world. Objets d’art acquired by Latchford found their way into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the National Gallery of Australia, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and many others, while Latchford kept many of the best pieces for himself. At the time of his death, his collection was estimated to contain some 125 items valued at more than $50 million. Latchford painted himself as a savior of these pieces, which, if not for him, “would likely have been shot up for target practice by the Khmer Rouge”—or so he claimed. 

Not everyone saw Latchford in such a generous light, however, and many sources threw doubt upon how he obtained the items he trafficked, with The Diplomat writing that “no single figure looms as large over a nation’s wholesale pillage.” In 2019, Latchford was charged with falsifying the provenance of many of the works he had sold, but by August of 2020 he had passed away. When his daughter inherited his collection, she agreed to return it to the National Museum of Cambodia, although many of the pieces that Latchford looted remain in museums and private collections all over the world.