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Still in the Aftermath of Waterloo

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What happens to art in time of war? Who should own art? Under what circumstances should victors in war allow the defeated to keep their art and other cultural property? Should the age-old idea of ‘to the victors go the spoils’ still be the common expectation in warfare? These are old questions that go back to debates in antiquity. The first legal case that dealt with these issues was Cicero’s prosecution of Gaius Verres for extortion in 70 BCE ; because Verres was a rapacious collector of art, Cicero used the theme of art collection as a buttressing point in his case. In the modern era, critics of Napoleon’s looting of Italy used the Verrines for fuel and denounced Napoleon as a new Verres. Lord Elgin was accused by Lord Byron of being another Verres in his despoliation of the Parthenon, and raised public ire against the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles. But in the Verrines, Cicero had held up as models for behavior the conquering Roman generals who did not loot art, and especially Scipio Aemilianus, conqueror of Carthage, who repatriated art that had been taken from Sicily by Carthaginians. This ancient model of repatriation and abstention from plunder was discussed again in London newspapers in 1815, in the aftermath of Waterloo.

Thanks to the decisions made by the Duke of Wellington, a modern precedent was set for repatriating plundered art to Italy and other countries that had been invaded by Napoleon. That episode in turn helped to inspire the Lieber Code during the Civil War in the U.S., the legal basis for international agreements that exist today to protect cultural property in time of war. In turn, concerns about nationalism as a basis for cultural identity and for making claims about cultural property are being debated as foreign governments are asking for the return of their cultural artifacts now in American museums. This lecture reviews the debate about the repatriations after Waterloo among the British involved in the decision. A fresh examination of their reasoning provides new light on current debates.

This talk is part of the CRASSH events series.

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