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.
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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.