The spoils of war have included art treasures since long before the Nazis looted Europe. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the end of the Napoleonic Wars. During that conflict, the French plundered the Italian peninsula, Spain, the German states, and the Low Countries. In fact Henri Beyle—better known by his pen-name Stendhal—had an alternate career as one of the official French looters in the north German states.
Egypt was only saved from French depredation because the British beat them there and took the things the French were planning to take: This is why the Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum, not the Louvre.
Napoleon’s fall did not mean that the art would be returned to its original owners, especially things already on display in Paris. The French people may have turned on Napoleon, but not on the great art he’d plundered for the glory of France.
Dorothy Mackay Quynn tells this story with brio. She writes that the French considered looting an historical corrective: Since the Romans stole from the Greeks, they felt entitled to loot from the Romans and their descendants. A few French voices protested, glad that things like the Sistine Chapel could not physically be carted off, but in general to the victor went the spoils. Thus has it ever been. Note that Quynn’s article was published in April 1945, and ends: “It remains to be seen whether the present war will prove to have had a still more disastrous effect.”
Paige S. Goodwin, writing in 2008, makes the historical analogy clear in her discussion of stolen Flemish art on display in French museums. The idea of “cultural property” came out of World War II, but the legal regime that allows for the repatriation of art taken during WWII seems to have a statue of limitations. Things taken centuries ago remain where they are. Goodwin makes “an argument for why France should return Flemish art […] and describes the legal routes Belgium might take to retrieve its works of art.”
Might that happen? Should it? From the Elgin Marbles to the bones and implements of native peoples in natural history museums, this is a debate that rages on.