Centre for Continuing Education

History Course: Looting, Theft and the Illicit Trade in Antiquities

History. See the future. It’s in the past.

Join us for this history course and learn how armies, tomb robbers, terrorist organisations and some of the world’s most distinguished museums have all contributed to the illicit trade in antiquities. The problem is complex and the solution is not easy, but in recent years there have been some spectacular successes in the repatriation of cultural property.

We begin by considering the notions of possession and ownership of antiquities and the development in law of concepts of state ownership of cultural property. We then look at current international UN conventions and the mechanisms for recovery and repatriation. The concept of World Heritage and its impact is also assessed.

Case studies look at 19th century looting by colonial armies in Africa and recent political pressure on European museums for repatriation. We will also look at the theft of antiquities by tomb robbers and site looters in contemporary Italy and war-torn Iraq. There will be plenty of opportunity for discussion through the evaluation of past failures and successes and for future solutions.


This course aims to explore some of the ethical, legal and political aspects of looting, theft and the illicit trade in antiquities. It seeks to clarify notions of individual, national or group ownership of cultural property and to assess the arguments for the repatriation of antiquities once seized.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • identify factors that may contribute to the illicit trade in antiquities
  • outline in the case of one country the historical development of legal protections for antiquities
  • identify two successes in the repatriation of antiquities deemed to be of national significance
  • demonstrate an awareness of the legal and political impediments to repatriation
  • demonstrate an awareness of international police cooperation in the recovery of illicitly traded antiquities
  • evaluate the effectiveness of one national legal system in the protection of cultural heritage
  • evaluate the effectiveness of one international convention in the protection of cultural heritage
  • assess the current international situation regarding the theft, recovery and repatriation of antiquities and argue for specific changes.


  • Collecting, looting and plunder a brief survey from the Romans to colonial Africa
  • Factors that contribute to the growth of the illicit trade in antiquities
  • Nationalism and concepts of patrimony expressed in laws against foreign export of antiquities
  • The development of specialised police units for the investigation of theft and illegal export of antiquities
  • International conventions and the protection of cultural property
  • The arguments for and against the return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece
  • Tomb robbing and thefts from museums and archaeological sites in Italy
  • Thefts from the Bagdad museum, Iraq and Palmyra, Syria – attempts at recovery
  • The plunder of antiquities from Ethiopia and Nigeria after armed conflict

Intended audience

Anyone interested in extending their knowledge of antiquities and the ethical, legal and political issues that arise from their trade.



Delivery style

  • Lecture with audio-visual presentation
  • Discussion with interactive Q&A
  • Discussion related to documents contained in the course notes


Course notes including website addresses, a specialised bibliography, and discussion material on laws relating to cultural property and national heritage, as well as relevant UN conventions are provided electronically.

Recommended reading

As general background preparation for the course, participants may find material of interest in any one of these books:

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, 2011, Chasing Aphrodite, The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston-New York.

Dan Hicks, 2020, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, Pluto, London, UK. (+ Kindle).

Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, 2007, The Medici Conspiracy. The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums, Public Affairs, New York, USA.

Colin Renfrew, 2000, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: the Ethical Crisis in Archaeology, Bristol Classical Press, Bristol.

Geoffrey Robinson, 2019, Who owns history? Elgins’s loot and the case for returning plundered treasure, Penguin, London, UK. (+ Kindle).

Lawrence Rothfield (ed.), 2008, Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Protection after the Iraq War, AltaMira Press, Lanham MD.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

We acknowledge the tradition of custodianship and law of the Country on which the University of Sydney campuses stand. We pay our respects to those who have cared and continue to care for the Country.