The plundering of the Frankfurter Judengasse, 22 August 1614

Looting, also referred to as sacking, plundering, despoiling, despoliation, and pillaging, is the indiscriminate taking of goods by force as part of a military or political victory, or during a catastrophe, such as war,[1] natural disaster,[2] or rioting.[3] The term is also used in a broader sense to describe egregious instances of theft and embezzlement, such as the "plundering" of private or public assets by corrupt or greedy authorities.[4] Looting is loosely distinguished from scavenging in terms of objects taken: scavenging implies taking of essential items such as food, water, shelter, or other material needed for survival while looting implies items of luxury or not necessary for survival such as art work, precious metals or other valuables. The proceeds of all these activities can be described as loot, plunder, spoils, or pillage.

Looters attempting to enter a cycle shop in North London during the 2011 England riots

Looting by type

War looting

The sacking and looting of Mechelen by the Spanish troops led by the Duke of Alba, 2 October 1572

Looting by a victorious army during war has been common practice throughout recorded history. For foot soldiers, it was viewed as a way to supplement their often meagre income[5] and was part of the celebration of victory. On higher levels, the proud exhibition of loot was an integral part of the typical Roman triumph, and Genghis Khan was not unusual in proclaiming that the greatest happiness was "to vanquish your enemies... to rob them of their wealth..."[6]

In warfare in ancient times, the spoils of war included the defeated populations, which were often enslaved, and the women and children, who were often absorbed into the victorious country's population.[7][8] In other pre-modern societies, objects made of precious metals were the preferred target of war looting, largely because of their easy portability. In many cases looting was an opportunity to obtain treasures that otherwise would not have been obtainable. Since the 18th century, works of art have increasingly become a popular target. In the 1930s and even more so during World War II, Nazi Germany engaged in large scale and organized looting of art and property.[9][10]

Looting, combined with poor military discipline, has occasionally been an army's downfall. In other cases, for example the Wahhabi sack of Karbala, loot has financed further victories.[11] Not all looters in wartime are conquerors; the looting of Vistula Land by its retreating defenders in 1915[12] was among the factors sapping the loyalty of Poland in World War I. Local civilians can also take advantage of a breakdown of authority to loot public and private property, such as took place at the National Museum of Iraq in the course of the Iraq War in 2003.[13] The novel War and Peace describes widespread looting by Moscow's citizens before Napoleon's troops enter the town, and looting by French troops elsewhere.

Archaeological removals

Looting can also refer to antiquities formerly removed from countries by outsiders, such as some of the contents of Egyptian tombs which were transported to museums in Europe.[14] Other examples include the obelisks of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, in the (Oriental Museum, University of Durham, United Kingdom), Pharaoh Ptolemy IX, (Philae Obelisk, in Wimborne, Dorset, United Kingdom). Recent controversies include the major part of the architectural sculptures adorning the Parthenon, often called the "Elgin Marbles", removed by Lord Elgin, later sold to the British Museum, and claimed by Greece that they should be returned.[15]

Looting of industry

In the aftermath of the Second World War Soviet forces systematically plundered the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, including the Recovered Territories which were to be transferred to Poland. They sent valuable industrial equipment, infrastructure and whole factories to the Soviet Union.[16][17]

Measures against looting

FAFN soldier has been caught by French Foreign Legion troops.

During a disaster, police and military authorities are sometimes unable to prevent looting when they are overwhelmed by humanitarian or combat concerns, or cannot be summoned due to damaged communications infrastructure. Especially during natural disasters, some people find themselves forced to take what is not theirs in order to survive. How to respond to this is often a dilemma for the authorities.[18] In other cases, looting may be tolerated or even encouraged by authorities for political or other reasons.

The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 explicitly prohibits the looting of civilian property during wartime.[19] The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 (modified in 1954) obliges military forces not only to avoid destruction of enemy property, but to provide protection to it.[20] Theoretically, to prevent such looting, unclaimed property is moved to the custody of the Custodian of Enemy Property, to be handled until the return to its owner.

Examples of looting

By conquerors

The iconic bust of Nefertiti, claimed by some to be illegally obtained by the Germans during the customary excavations at Tell el-Amarna in 1912.[21][22]
Iraqi looters in the archaeological site of Isin

By others

  • In 1863, anti-draft riots in New York City resulted in four days of arson, looting and violence against city's free black population.[24]
  • In 1939 through 1941, during the bombing of British cities by the German Luftwaffe several incidents of bomb damaged buildings being looted by gangs of children, firemen, and the general public were reported.[25]
  • In 1977 the New York Blackout resulted in massive rioting and looting throughout the city of New York.
  • In 1989 during the US invasion of Panama, there was massive systematic looting in Panama City.
  • In 1992, during the Rodney King riots, widespread looting occurred in Los Angeles, California.
  • After the United States occupied Iraq, the absence of Iraqi police and the reluctance of the U.S. to act as a police force enabled looters to raid homes and businesses, especially in Baghdad, most notably the Iraqi National Museum. During the looting, many hospitals were stripped of nearly all supplies. However, upon investigation many of the looting claims were in fact exaggerated. Most notably the Iraqi National Museum in which many curators had stored important artifacts in the vaults of Iraq's central bank.[26]
  • In 2005 in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina there was extensive looting, with police being accused of joining in some cases.[27]
  • In 2010 after the Haiti earthquake, slow distribution of the relief aid and the large number of affected people created concerns of civil unrest, marked by looting and mob justice against suspected looters.[28][29]
  • During the 2011 London riots, gangs of youths undertook looting in a number of areas across the capital.[30] It has been suggested that rioting may have been organised [31] but it is unclear by whom, and to what end. London had previously been subjected to looting following the Brixton riot of 1981, and by gangs of youths who took advantage of war damage during the Second World War.[32] The 2011 London looting was copied on subsequent nights in other cities around England, including Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.[33]
  • In 2014 in Ferguson, MO after the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, a small amount of protesters began looting after the release of controversial information nearly a week after Brown's death.[34]
  • In 2015 in Baltimore, MD after the funeral of Freddie Gray, looting and rioting took place in the Mondawmin neighborhood where the funeral had taken place.[35]


  1. ^ "Baghdad protests over looting". BBC News (BBC). 2003-04-12. Retrieved 2010-10-22. 
  2. ^ "World: Americas Looting frenzy in quake city". BBC Online Network (BBC). 1999-01-28. Retrieved 2010-10-22. 
  3. ^ "Argentine president resigns". BBC News (BBC). 2001-12-21. Retrieved 2010-10-22. 
  4. ^ "Definition of the word loot". Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, LLC. 2010. 
  5. ^ Hsi-sheng Chi, Warlord politics in China, 1916-1928, Stanford University Press, 1976, ISBN 0804708940, str. 93
  6. ^ Henry Hoyle Howorth History of the Mongols from the 9th to the 19th Century: Part 1 the Mongols Proper and the Kalmyks, Cosimo Inc. 2008.
  7. ^ John K. Thorton, African Background in American Colonization, in The Cambridge economic history of the United States, Stanley L. Engerman, Robert E. Gallman (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1996, ISBN 0521394422, p.87. "African states waged war to acquire slaves [...] raids that appear to have been more concerned with obtaining loot (including slaves) than other objectives."
  8. ^ Sir John Bagot Glubb, The Empire of the Arabs, Hodder and Stoughton, 1963, p.283. "...thousand Christian captives formed part of the loot and were subsequently sold as slaves in the markets of Syria".
  9. ^ (Polish) J. R. Kudelski, Tajemnice nazistowskiej grabieży polskich zbiorów sztuki, Warszawa 2004.
  10. ^ "Nazi loot claim 'compelling'". BBC News. October 2, 2002. Retrieved May 11, 2010. 
  11. ^ Wayne H. Bowen, The History of Saudi Arabia, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008, p. 73. ISBN 0313340129
  12. ^ (Polish) Andrzej Garlicki, Z dziejów Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej, Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne, 1986, ISBN 8302022454, p. 147
  13. ^ STEVEN LEE MYERS, Iraq Museum Reopens Six Years After Looting, New York Times, February 23, 2009
  14. ^ "Egypt's Antiquities Chief Combines Passion, Clout to Protect Artifacts". National Geographic News. October 24, 2006. 
  15. ^ Thorpe, Vanessa (January 13, 2002). "Elgin Marbles 'should be shared' with Greece". London: The Guardian UK. Retrieved May 11, 2010. 
  16. ^ "MIĘDZY MODERNIZACJĄ A MARNOTRAWSTWEM" (in Polish). Institute of National Remembrance. Archived from the original on 2005-03-21.  See also other copy online
  17. ^ "ARMIA CZERWONA NA DOLNYM ŚLĄSKU" (in Polish). Institute of National Remembrance. Archived from the original on 2005-03-21. 
  18. ^ "Indonesian food minister tolerates looting". BBC News. July 21, 1998. Retrieved May 11, 2010. 
  19. ^ E. Lauterpacht, C. J. Greenwood, Marc Weller, The Kuwait Crisis: Basic Documents, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 154. ISBN 0521463084
  20. ^ Barbara T. Hoffman, Art and cultural heritage: law, policy, and practice, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 57. ISBN 0521857643
  21. ^ (English) "Top 10 Plundered Artifacts - Nefertiti's Bust". www.time.com. March 5, 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-27.  "German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt (...) claimed to have an agreement with the Egyptian government that included rights to half his finds (...). But a new document suggests Borchardt intentionally misled Egyptian authorities about Nefertiti."
  22. ^ Will Nefertiti Return to Egypt for a Brief Visit? Egypt Asks Germany for a Majestic Loan by Stan Parchin (June 17, 2006) about.com
  23. ^ Hevia, James Louis (2003). English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China. Durham; Hong Kong: Duke University Press; Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 0822331519. .
  24. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0801.html
  25. ^ "A nation of looters: it even happened in the Blitz". The Week UK. 
  26. ^ "Penn Museum - University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology". upenn.edu. 
  27. ^ Photos : Story in Pictures-- Hurricane Katrina : Aug 31, 2005: Looting in Mississippi
  28. ^ "Mob justice in Haiti". thestar.com. 17 January 2010. 
  29. ^ "Looting Flares Where Authority Breaks Down"
  30. ^ "Further riots in London as violence spreads across England". BBC News. August 9, 2011. 
  31. ^ Lewis, Paul; Taylor, Matthew; Quinn, Ben (August 8, 2011). "Second night of violence in London – and this time it was organised". The Guardian (London). 
  32. ^ MacKay, Robert (2002). Half the Battle: Civilian Morale in Britain During the Second World War. Manchester University Press. p. 84. ISBN 0719058945.
  33. ^ "UK riots: Trouble erupts in English cities". BBC News. August 10, 2011. 
  34. ^ http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/16/michael-brown-shooting-ferguson-missouri-police/14152447/
  35. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/28/us/baltimore-freddie-gray.html