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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Jason Felch, Ralph Frammolino

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

Why 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. 


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

By Oscar White Muscarella

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

Why 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.


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

By Peter Watson, Cecilia Todeschini

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

Why 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.   


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

By Christopher Heaney

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

Why 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.  


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

By Sharon Waxman

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

Why 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. 


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