Art theft typically conjures pieces ripped from the walls of world-class museums, and while art heists take place frequently, they are not the only means by which priceless treasures are taken. Throughout history, masterpieces have plundered, looted, and stolen, and taken far away from the original locales.
For the former owners of such stolen works, getting their prized possessions back can be tricky and involve decades-long legal and political ordeals. Whether the cases involve allegations that works were looted during war or plundered during conquests, the process of retrieving these pieces can be long and difficult—and even, in many cases, unsuccessful.
The list below surveys 20 works that were subject to claims that they had been looted, plundered, or stolen by other means. By no means comprehensive, it includes works looted by the Nazis, objects taken as war booty, and artifacts plundered amid conquests and colonization. In many cases, allegations that the works were taken improperly have been disputed by the institutions and collectors that currently claim ownership over the art in question, and the battles by the people who claim to be the pieces’ original owners is still ongoing.
Over the past decade, demands for the repatriation of cultural objects—particularly ones from Africa—have grown louder, and this list also reflects some of those claims. It will be updated as new developments take place.
Below, a look at 20 iconic cultural treasures that have faced allegations that they were stolen, from ancient Greek marbles and African artifacts to Renaissance masterpieces and a modernist treasure.
The Horses of St. Mark's are stolen during the sacking of Constantinople (1204)
While looting and plundering are generally regarded as a more modern phenomenon, with most events listed here taking place over the past few centuries, it is, in fact, a practice as old as time. Sometime around 330, a set of four bronze horses that appear to be trotting onward were stolen, perhaps from somewhere in Greece, by Constantine. Eventually, they made their way to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in what is now modern-day Turkey, and they remained there for centuries.
In 1204, as the city was being sacked, the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo’s troops took the sculptures and brought them to Italy, where they were placed before St. Mark’s Basilica. Even after their second theft, these sculptures could not catch a break: Napoleon’s soldiers took them and mounted them atop the Arc de Triomphe in 1797. (They narrowly avoided being melted down into cannonballs.) In 1815, the statues were returned to St. Mark’s, though they are now kept inside the basilica instead of outside it because of the risks posed by air pollution.
Napoleon’s soldiers cut a giant Veronese painting from a Venetian refectory (1797)
By 1705, Paolo Veronese’s Wedding at Cana (1563), a sprawling 32-foot-long painting depicting the famed biblical episode, was drawing so many visitors that the Bendectine monks at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice had to start capping how many people could see in a given span of time. What those monks didn’t know is that, less than 100 years later, the painting would be leaving Venice for good. In 1797, Napoleon’s troops hauled the painting back to France as war booty, along with four bronze horses (see entry 1).
Because of the painting’s size, it was cut into pieces and restitched upon its arrival in France. It can now be seen at the Louvre, where it ranks among the museum’s many treasures. Although the legality of the situation has been settled—an 1815 exchange that saw a work by Charles Le Brun head from France to Italy cleared that up—the plundering continues to rankle Venetians, who have made various failed attempts to reclaim the work. In 2010, Venice got a version of the Veronese back, thanks to a high-tech digital facsimile, and in 2021, art historian and journalist Cynthia Saltzman published a book about Napoleon’s taking of the work.
A beloved set of sculptures from Parthenon head to England (1801–12)
In 1816, the British Museum purchased a set of ancient Greek marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens for £35,000 (about $4.8 million today). The 1801–12 excavation of these objects overseen by Lord Elgin, a Scottish diplomat, cost about two times that amount, but the works—a giant horse’s head, a metope depicting a battle between a man and a centaur, and more—are now considered priceless. For that reason, they have been the subject of scrutiny, with many alleging that Elgin may not have legally purchased the works from the Ottoman Turks, who ruled Greece at the time. (A lack of documentation that could establish that such a purchase was legally sound has only heightened these claims.)
Greece has demanded the Elgin Marbles’ return and has said it plans to show them in the Acropolis Museum, where there is already a space for their display, should they ever come back. But, as of 2021, there are no signs that the British Museum plans to let the Elgin Marbles leave, and in 2014, the London institution even turned down an offer from UNESCO to mediate negotiations for their return with Greece. “The trustees of the British Museum are entirely satisfied that the Parthenon Sculptures were legally acquired,” a spokesperson told ARTnews in 2020.
The Rosetta Stone is displayed in London after being discovered in Egypt (1802)
The Rosetta Stone, a granite stone etched with three ancient scripts and dating to the second century B.C.E., has been considered one of the greatest artifacts of all time for the secrets it revealed about ancient languages, in particular hieroglyphics. Having been discovered in 1799 near Alexandria by a Frenchman, it was given to the British after France surrendered Egypt in 1801.
But the terms by which it ultimately entered the British Museum’s collection are unclear, and Zahi Hawass, the former head of Egypt’s antiquities department, has alleged that it was stolen. “If the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity,” he once said. In 2009, when Hawass asked for the object to be loaned to Egypt, British Museum said that no official request for its return had been made by his country.
British troops take a gold crown during the capture of Maqdala (1868)
In 1868, British troops captured Maqdala in a battle that was part of a larger attempt to overthrow the Ethiopian empire. As they ransacked a fortress, the soldiers took with them various riches, including an ornate gold crown that is believed to have been commissioned in the 1740s by a ruler and her son.
That crown is now on view at Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which faced a call for the return and various other artifacts by Ethiopia in 2007. In 2018, as the museum put on view a special presentation devoted to the Maqdala artifacts, renewed attention was paid to that demand. That year, the museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, held out the possibility of a long-term loan to Ethiopia.
Although the museum notes on its website that the works act as an “unsettling reminder of the imperial processes which enabled British museums to acquire the cultural assets of others,” the V&A has said it will not return the crown and other objects as of 2021.
A Senegalese sword is seized by the French (1893)
It is currently estimated that the French state owns 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa, one of which is a sword formerly belonging to a military leader, Omar Saïdou Tall, who once ruled the Toucouleur empire, which encompassed parts of modern-day Senegal, Mali, and Guinea. In 1893, after Tall’s son Ahmadou was defeated in battle by the French, the sword was taken from Africa and brought to France. It later entered the collection of the Army Museum in Paris.
In 2019, the work was handed over to Senegalese president Macky Sall after having been on view at Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilizations for several months. Even if the sword’s return was not technically a restitution, as the French state emphasized, it was progress toward one. As France slowly inches closer to repatriating objects to Africa, the sword’s return is considered a landmark step.
The “Bangwa Queen” is acquired by a German agent and heads to Berlin (1897–99)
The “Bangwa Queen,” a sculpture from Cameroon’s Grassfields region, has generated renown in the U.S. and Europe for its decorated provenance—it once was held by the collector Helena Rubinstein. The sculpture had famously been photographed by Man Ray, and it has figured in shows at MoMA, the Met, and various other institutions.
It came to Europe sometime between 1897 and 1899, and it went to Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde. (It’s not clear whether it was given to the German agent or looted.) The museum held the work until 1926 when it was first sold to an art dealer. Rubinstein acquired it in the 1930s.
Later, Rubinstein’s collection of African and Oceanic art objects was sold at Sotheby’s Parke Bernet in 1966, where California collector Harry A. Franklin purchased it. Franklin would sell the work at auction in 1990, where it was bought for a record $3.4 million by the Dapper Foundation, which still owns the work.
More recently, it has made headlines because the Bangwa people have begun seeking its return, fearing that it might head to auction once more. The Dapper Foundation, which closed its Paris museum in 2017, said in 2018 that it will continue to appear in exhibitions around the world.
A cache of African artifacts is stolen amid a raid by British soldiers (1897)
In 1897, James Phillips, an unarmed British member of a trading expedition, visited the Kingdom of Benin, in what is today Nigeria. Believing that the expedition was going to interrupt a series of rituals taking place, chiefs reporting to the kingdom’s ruler, or its oba, Ovonramwen, had Phillips and several others killed. Two hundred African porters were also slain in the process. In retribution, Britain sent soldiers to take artifacts from the kingdom, in an attempt to weaken its reign. Then as now, the objects they took were highly valuable—they took with them a carved ivory mask depicting the oba, a series of brass plaques known as the Benin Bronzes, and a group of giant tusks. Some of these works now reside at the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other major institutions around the world.
Many in Africa have demanded that these institutions return the works, and possibly the most notable call of the kind came out of 1977’s FESTAC festival in Lagos, where the ivory mask acted as a symbol for the event. Nevertheless, Nigerians are still awaiting the return of most of the Benin Bronzes, and the Edo Museum of West African Art, a new museum due to open in 2025 in Benin City, will act as a future home when objects are repatriated.
A sacred headdress is taken from an Indigenous Australian group (1910s or earlier)
Certain estimates suggest that U.K. museums own at least 32,000 objects belonging to Indigenous Australian groups, and in 2019, the Manchester Museum made history when it gave back a sacred headdress made of emu feathers to the Gangalidda Garawa people in a ceremony, becoming the first institution in the country to undertake such an endeavor.
The headdress has entered the U.K. at least 100 years before, and it was returned as part of an initiative commemorating the 250th anniversary of British explorer James Cook’s first voyage to Australia. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies had identified the headdress as an object in need of return.
“We need to make it crystal clear that our people want our secret sacred items home,” Christopher Simpson, a member of the Wakka Wakka people who runs AIATSIS, told the Guardian at the time. “There are objects that are displayed in museums that we’d like to be empowered about and tell the full story of those items.”
A set of objects from Machu Picchu is taken to Yale for research (1911)
When Connecticut governor Hiram Bingham III began excavating the stone ruins of Machu Picchu with the consent of Peru in 1911, he discovered riches ranging from pottery to human bones. Many of these objects were taken to Yale University for research, and though some were ultimately shipped back to Peru, it became clear that others weren’t going anywhere.
Peru, which had been eager to protect its cultural heritage against looting, began seeking their return, in a battle that lasted almost a full century. In 2008, the quest intensified when Peru sued in U.S. federal court for their return. Yale refused to give them up, claiming that the country had waited too long. Alan García, then the president of Peru, got involved, seeking the help of President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict XVI. In the end, an agreement was reached after a delegation traveled to Peru, and it was decided that the objects would head to a university in Cuzco for their study and that a museum would ultimately be built to house them.
A bust of Nefertiti makes its way to Germany (1913)
With its almond-shaped eyes and its vivid colors, a 3,500-year-old limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti is considered one of the most important artifacts to come out of ancient Egypt—though you can only view it if you visit Germany. The sculpture was removed from Egypt in 1913 after being found during a dig at the archeological site Amarna by Ludwig Borchardt the year before. Over the past decade, as Egypt has ramped up its efforts to get back its cultural heritage held abroad, the bust has faced calls for Berlin’s National Museums to return it, including from the former Egyptian minister of antiquities affairs Zahi Hawass, who claimed that it entered Germany illegally.
Such demands are not new—Egypt began imploring Germany to give back the bust as early as 1920—though they have grown louder in recent years. German officials have responded that the work deserves to remain in Berlin, with art historian Monika Grütters telling the New York Times in 2009, “There was a complete understanding about what would remain in Egypt and what would be taken to Germany. The process was legal.” In 2011, Egypt submitted a formal request to get the work back.
A famed Klimt portrait is seized by the Nazis (1930s–40s)
Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), a knockout portrait featuring a female sitter whose gold and black dress appears to surround her, was bought by collector Ronald Lauder for $135 million in 2006, and it has hung at his New York museum, the Neue Galerie, ever since. But its journey there was long and arduous. The painting once belonged to the husband of the titular subject, who, in 1938, left Austria as the Nazis were rising to power during World War II. The Nazis then gave the work to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, where it remained for years afterward.
All the while, Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, repeatedly claimed that the work had been looted by the Nazis, and undertook various legal actions in an attempt to get it back. Her tireless work paid off: in 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Altmann could sue Austria, and a tribunal in that country decided that she was the rightful owner of the Klimt and four other works. Altmann’s struggle to reobtain the work was later given the cinematic treatment in the form of a 2015 movie where Helen Mirren played her.
Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man goes missing during World War II (1930s–40s)
There are very few known Raphael self-portraits, and scholars believe that one may be Portrait of a Young Man (ca. 1515), which was acquired by the Czartoryski family in Poland in 1800. Afterward, it was put on view at the family’s museum in Krakow. But during the World War II, the painting disappeared, along with hundreds of other pieces that the Nazis took from the family’s cellar as loot. Its history thereafter remains blurry, with some believing that the work was taken to Austria.
For the past six decades, the Czartoryski family has searched for the work, and in 1998, Prince Adam Czartoryski told the Art Newspaper, “Ever since I learned about the Raphael as a boy, I have been hopeful that it will turn up.” Briefly, there was hope that it was found—reports in 2012 claimed that the painting was located, though these were quickly debunked. For now, an empty frame that once held the canvas is on view at the National Museum in Krakow.
The Rothschild family loses a beloved Vermeer during World War II (1940s)
According to some estimates, one-third of all privately owned art in France was looted by the Nazis during World War II, and one such work was Jan Vermeer’s The Astronomer (1668), one of just three dozen paintings attributed to the artist. Édouard de Rothschild, a Jewish collector, formerly owned the work, and it was taken from him by the Nazis, who brought it from Paris to Germany. The work was stamped with a swastika, which is still on the back of its canvas.
In 1945, the Vermeer painting, along with numerous other masterpieces, was found in the Altaussee salt mine in Austria, where the Nazis had stowed many looted artworks. (Hitler had been planning to put the work in a sizable institution of his making.) Ultimately, the work was given back to the Rothschild family, and in 1983, the French state acquired it, putting it on view at the Louvre, where it remains today.
Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna gets stolen by the Nazis (1944)
The Bruges Madonna, a statue featuring the Madonna smiling down at the baby Jesus, has had the rare misfortune of having been stolen twice. In 1794, when he occupied the Belgian city, Napoleon’s troops took the statue from the Church of Our Lady, which had held the work since 1514; the work was returned in 1814. Then, during World War II, it was plundered once more.
In 1944, just before Belgium was liberated by Allied forces, the Nazis stole the sculpture, eventually moving it to the Altaussee salt mine, where the Monuments Men—a team of researchers who undertook the risky search of Nazi-looted art in wartime Europe—later found it. One year later, the Michelangelo statue was returned to the church, where it currently be seen today.
Artifacts from Cambodia end up with a controversial dealer (second half of 20th century)
Because the looting of Cambodian artifacts is so widespread, it is hard to know the depth of the trade. Throughout his life, dealer Douglas Latchford, who was born a British citizen in India and died in 2020 in Bangkok, was accused repeatedly of trafficking in such stolen objects—a claim he denied over and over. “Most of the pieces I have come across have been found or dug up by farmers in fields,” Latchford once told the Bangkok Post. He had faced legal action in New York for allegedly being part of a looting ring.
That made it all the more surprising when, in 2021, Latchford’s daughter, Nawapan Kriangsak, promised the return of at least 100 carvings and sculptures from her father’s holdings. To accommodate the return of the objects, Cambodia is expanding a museum in its capital, Phnom Penh.
An ancient Greek vase is taken by grave robbers and later makes its way to New York (1971)
When the Euphronios Krater, a terracotta bowl intended for mixing wine and water from around 515 B.C.E., traveled from Europe to New York in 1972, it did so via a first-class seat on a TWA flight, according to a memoir by dealer Robert Hecht. (The veracity of that memoir has been disputed by the dealer himself.) The year before, in Cerveteri, Italy, grave robbers had dug it up and then sold it to an Italian antiquities dealer. Hecht purchased it from that person and sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Years later, Italy began demanding the object’s return, and in 2006, an accord was reached, and the work was shipped back. “The Italian state has won,” Rocco Buttiglione, the former Italian culture minister who oversaw the accord, said at the time. Today, the work is owned by the Archaeological Museum of Cerveteri.
Ancient Egyptian frescoes are removed from a tomb near Luxor (1980s)
In 2009, controversy erupted at the Louvre after Egyptian officials claimed that the Paris museum had refused to give back four ancient frescoes from a tomb near Luxor. Egypt and France disagreed on how the works came to the museum. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s antiquities department, claimed that the works were “stolen” during the 1980s, while Frédéric Miterrand, then the French culture minister, said that they were acquired by the museum in “good faith” in 2000 and 2003 from a Parisian gallery and auction house, respectively.
Although Mitterand said he thought the objects should be returned, a highly public dispute ensued: Egypt said it would terminate relations with the Louvre and immediately shut down a dig being undertaken by the museum in Saqqara. No less than two days later, however, all was resolved when the Louvre formally agreed to return the works.
Thieves plunder thousands of artifacts from a Baghdad museum amid conflict (2003)
As U.S. troops advanced in Baghdad in 2003 while Saddam Hussein’s rule was coming to an end, thousands of objects were stolen from the National Museum of Iraq, which contains several millennia of art history in its holdings. In a matter of days, thieves walked away with countless artifacts, including various highly valuable cylindrical artifacts such as The Lioness Attacking a Nubian, which dates back to the 8th century B.C.E. and is inlaid with lapis.
Initially, experts estimated that at least 170,000 objects were taken from the National Museum, though that number has shrunk significantly, and artifacts have been found under occasionally bizarre circumstances. (In one case, for example, a pot from the 7th century B.C.E. was found wrapped in a trash bag and stowed in the trunk of a car.) As of 2021, the FBI estimates that as many as 10,000 items are still missing. “Every single item that was lost is a great loss for humanity,” George Youkhanna, the former director general of Iraq’s museums, told Smithsonian Magazine in 2008.
A gold sarcophagus is removed from Egypt (2011)
In 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art created an entire exhibition centered around a newly acquired ancient Egyptian sarcophagus from the 1st century B.C.E. that it had bought for nearly $4 million. The next year, the museum was forced to return its prized coffin after being presented with evidence that the provenance they had received with the sale was potentially false. The Manhattan district attorney’s office was able to show that the work was likely looted in Egypt sometime around 2011.
“We will learn from this event—specifically I will be leading a review of our acquisitions program—to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future,” Max Hollein, the Met’s director, said in a statement. In 2020, the Paris dealer who sold the Met the sarcophagus was charged in France with fraud and money laundering.