The best books on the looting of the ancient world

Roger Atwood Author Of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World
By Roger Atwood

Who am I?

I’m a journalist, critic, and poet who has spent a career engaging with the world. I love telling stories, and I strive to put beauty and tension into everything I write. I’ve had great editors – they’ve published my work in The Guardian, National Geographic, ARTnews, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, and Archaeology, where I am a contributing editor, and many other places – but it always comes down to me and my computer. And often a plane ticket and a suitcase. 

I wrote...

Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World

By Roger Atwood,

Book cover of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World

What is my book about?

Looters supply a global antiquities trade that swallows up heritage to feed distant, private collections. People have always looted ancient sites, but today it’s an efficient, demand-driven enterprise with the capacity to wipe out the remains of whole civilizations. That’s what happens in Peru, where I did the bulk of the research for this book, and Iraq and elsewhere where ancient peoples left rich material legacies. 

This book started as a hunch. A friend in Lima who collected artifacts introduced me to one of his suppliers – a looter extraordinaire, who dug up tombs and emptied them in minutes. In the book that followed, I used Peru as a case study to discuss an accelerating global phenomenon fed by corruption and greed and to suggest solutions.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum

Why did I love this book?

This is a book about a smuggling racket of looted artifacts from Greece and Italy to the United States. But on a deeper level, I loved it because it’s about two reporters – the authors – standing up to powerful institutions by exposing their extremely unethical practices. Museums have been receiving looted artifacts for decades, turning a blind eye to theft and smuggling. This book exposes how that process works. It’s a brilliant, unsettling, and inspiring read and an example of crack investigative reporting. 

By Jason Felch, Ralph Frammolino,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Chasing Aphrodite as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A “thrilling, well-researched” account of years of scandal at the prestigious Getty Museum (Ulrich Boser, author of The Gardner Heist).
In recent years, several of America’s leading art museums have voluntarily given up their finest pieces of classical art to the governments of Italy and Greece. Why would they be moved to such unheard-of generosity? The answer lies at the Getty, one of the world’s richest and most troubled museums, and scandalous revelations that it had been buying looted antiquities for decades. Drawing on a trove of confidential museum records and candid interviews, these two journalists give us a fly-on-the-wall…

Book cover of The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures

Why did I love this book?

This is a pioneering, extraordinarily well-documented exposé of how famous museums have filled their shelves with looted artifacts and more than a few fakes – which, the author explains, tend to flock together. The author was a whistle-blowing curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He knows his stuff. So why was I reluctant to recommend this title?  Because it’s so hard to find and, with hundreds of photographs, costs upwards of $100. If you can find a used copy, grab it, and if your local library has it, kiss a librarian and make a donation.

By Oscar White Muscarella,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lie Became Great as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Lie Became Great explores the closed society of international plunderers and forgers which thrives as a subculture of the Art World.
These multi-cultural denizens include antiquity dealers, collectors, museum curators, forgers working in conjunction with auction houses, museums and galleries. Forgeries are made to be sold, and a great number pass into the Art World - collections, exhibitions, catalogues, and popular and scholarly journals - complete with their fabricated stories of excavation, and how they were found. The Lie Became Great documents the success and activities of one small corner of this vast network - artifacts form the Ancient…

Book cover of The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities-- From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums

Why did I love this book?

No book exposes the tricks of the trade that smugglers and dealers use to launder looted artifacts like this one. Focusing on a wave of looting in southern Italy in the 1980s and ‘90s, the authors show how European and American millionaire collectors fueled the ransacking of ancient sites. It’s a substantive, entertaining read about crime and the contradictions of modern Italy by two brilliant writers.   

By Peter Watson, Cecilia Todeschini,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Medici Conspiracy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story begins, as stories do in all good thrillers, with a botched robbery and a police chase. Eight Apuleian vases of the fourth century B.C. are discovered in the swimming pool of a German-based art smuggler. More valuable than the recovery of the vases, however, is the discovery of the smuggler's card index detailing his deals and dealers. It reveals the existence of a web of tombaroli ,tomb raiders, who steal classical artifacts, and a network of dealers and smugglers who spirit them out of Italy and into the hands of wealthy collectors and museums. Peter Watson, a former…

Book cover of Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu

Why did I love this book?

The American explorer Hiram Bingham “discovered” the abandoned Inca resort of Machu Picchu in 1911 (in fact a local indigenous farmer led him to the ruins). He took home human bones and artifacts which Peru has been demanding back ever since, but to look at this story as simply a tale of colonialist exploitation would do it a disservice. Bingham was a colorful, big-hearted character who understood the importance of what he had found. The author captures his life and complicated legacy with grace and erudition, compellingly situating him in the Inca revivalist milieu of early twentieth century Cuzco. Anyone travelling to Peru should read it.  

By Christopher Heaney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cradle of Gold as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1911, a young Peruvian boy led an American explorer and Yale historian named Hiram Bingham into the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. Hidden amidst the breathtaking heights of the Andes, this settlement of temples, tombs and palaces was the Incas' greatest achievement. Tall, handsome, and sure of his destiny, Bingham believed that Machu Picchu was the Incas' final refuge, where they fled the Spanish Conquistadors. Bingham made Machu Picchu famous, and his dispatches from the jungle cast him as the swashbuckling hero romanticized today as a true Indiana Jones-like character. But his excavation of the site raised old…

Book cover of Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

Why did I love this book?

The long history of pillage as an act of colonial conquest – Napoleon looting Egypt, Britain looting Greece, among many others – is well-told in this solid, historically grounded account. Why are so many of the world’s great museums filled with treasures from ancient civilizations? This book tells you how it happened, while also showing why countries stripped of their heritage are demanding it back. There are a few books out there entitled Loot: this is the one to read. 

By Sharon Waxman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Loot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For the past two centuries, the West has plundered the treasures of the ancient world to fill its great museums, but in recent years the countries where ancient civilizations originated have begun to push back, taking museums to court, prosecuting curators, and threatening to force the return of these priceless objects. Sharon Waxman brings us inside this high-stakes conflict, from the great cities of the West to Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy, as these countries face down the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. She shows how the actions of a few determined…

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