The best books about looting

4 authors have picked their favorite books about looting and why they recommend each book.

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Hands Around the Library

By Karen Leggett Abouraya, Susan L. Roth (illustrator),

Book cover of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books

This is a wonderful, uplifting story that provides a springboard for conversations about how governments don't all give their people the same rights. It showcases an incident during the pro-democracy demonstrations of the Arab Spring of 2011 in Egypt. As a bonus, this book also celebrates the tremendous value of libraries. It tells the stirring (and true) tale of people of all stripes joining hands to defend the great library of Alexandria against possible damage during the unrest.

As with the other recommended books, children are a key part of the story's action. The narration is kid-friendly and engaging and the collage-style illustrations are bright and bouyant. Finally, the back matter will intrigue readers with photographs of the library's light-filled interiors, as well as photos of the dramatic defense of the library during the demonstrations.


Who am I?

I practiced law for more than twenty years before becoming an author. After writing several children's science books, in 2016 I turned to writing about civics and government. The internet was overflowing with politicians' misstatements about the Constitution, and I realized many Americans didn't understand fundamental democratic principles. I decided to write a book addressing kids, to help them appreciate their rights, obligations, and powers under the Constitution. In Free for You and Me, I focused on the First Amendment. I believe that talking with young people about the issues raised in all the books listed here will help us raise our kids to be informed and engaged community members.


I wrote...

Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means

By Christy Mihaly, Manu Montoya (illustrator),

Book cover of Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means

What is my book about?

This brightly illustrated book introduces the First Amendment using poems, historical vignettes, and contemporary stories. It explains each of the five freedoms this amendment protects: freedom of religion, free speech, free press, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Free for You and Me explains what we mean by the familiar retort, "It's a free country!" It provides a starting point for meaningful discussions with kids about our constitutional rights and their limits and possibilities. By promoting an understanding of the First Amendment, I hope to help young people appreciate Americans' ability to hold our government accountable and to empower them to use their freedoms to advocate for needed changes.

The Lie Became Great

By Oscar White Muscarella,

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

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.


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.

The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu

By Charlie English,

Book cover of The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu

Has a city ever been more mythologised than Timbuktu? Sure, it has been exaggerated in Western  Orientalist imaginations - but Malians have also subscribed to, and helped to create, this myth. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Timbuktu, and this non-fiction investigation into the “rescue” of  Timbuktu’s sacred manuscripts after Islamist attacks, is a brilliant combination of a real-life thriller and a biography of the enigmatic city herself. The realities of Timbuktu are not disappointing: it remains a well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage site, and a living city of trade, with ancient mosques and churches, erected amidst Saharan sand dunes and a bombed-out airport. The people who live here have also survived horrific violence: this book is a pretty accurate account of what did, and didn’t, happen when the Islamists came to town.


Who am I?

Louisa Waugh is a writer, blogger, and the prize-winning author of three non-fiction books: Hearing Birds Fly, Selling Olga, and Meet Me in Gaza. She has lived and worked in the Middle East, Central and West Africa, and is a conflict adviser for an international peace-building organisation. She blogs at The Waugh Zone and currently lives in Brighton, on the southern English coast, where she kayaks and drinks red wine on the beach, usually not at the same time.


I wrote...

Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia

By Louisa Waugh,

Book cover of Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia

What is my book about?

I went to live in Mongolia because I had always wanted to see the country, and had time on my hands. I lived in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for two years, then moved to a remote village in the Western Mountains to live in a village called Tsengel. I wanted to experience the intimate life of Mongolian nomads and their relationship with the heart-stopping seasons that have created the extraordinary landscape in which they live and die. My book is a portrait of a small community amidst the mountains that shape them culturally, religiously, and socially. And I had my own heart-stopping moments of fear, and joy, amongst these tough mountain people.

The Venus Fixers

By Ilaria Dagnini Brey,

Book cover of The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Monuments Officers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II

Dagnini’s book focuses specifically on Italy and the amazing stories of Rome, Naples, Florence, and Pisa among others. If you love Italian art and architecture, you will not be able to put this book down. Descriptions of the damage, but also how it was fixed and avoided in some cases, are truly inspiring. Without these Allied personnel, so much more could have been lost.


Who am I?

My interest in this topic began because of a trip to a museum in 2008. I noticed that a painting had been removed from view and a small piece of paper was hanging on the wall where the painting had been. The paper explained that this piece was involved in a court case revolving around whether or not it had been stolen from its Jewish owner by the Nazis during World War II. Nazi cultural appropriation, looting, suppression, and destruction turned out to be one of the most fascinating stories of the entire war. The research for my historical novel took several years, but it allowed me to write a book based on the facts.


I wrote...

The Altarpiece

By Lauren Fogle Boyd,

Book cover of The Altarpiece

What is my book about?

In the suffocating atmosphere of the Third Reich, art becomes a political issue. When the renowned modern artist Dietrich Junger is condemned by Hitler's puritanical artistic purge, his daughter Anke finds herself abandoned by the two men she loved most. An expert on the object of Nazi obsession, the medieval Ghent Altarpiece, Anke must walk a tightrope between her desire to rebel and her instinct to survive. 

Erik Brossler, a young Jewish art historian, was Anke’s childhood sweetheart who escaped to America. He is haunted by their separation and the imminent danger to Europe's priceless art. When America enters the war, Erik's new journey takes him into the heart of the inferno as he searches for art and the great love of his life. 

Chasing Aphrodite

By Jason Felch, Ralph Frammolino,

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

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. 


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.

The Medici Conspiracy

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

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.   


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.

The Book Thieves

By Anders Rydell, Henning Koch (translator),

Book cover of The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance

The plundering of books by the Nazis, especially literature belonging to the Jewish community, is the topic of this novel. Many books are untraceable today and their legitimate owners are long since dead. Nazis confiscated literature for various reasons, some involving original manuscripts, others used to seek out the enemies of the Reich, and quantities were gathered as status indicators. Once the war was over, there were book collections taken for a second time and justified as “liberated” rather than “plundered!” 

I enjoyed the novel because it covers an aspect of the Holocaust that is rarely addressed and offers insights into what happened to many books that disappeared from Jewish collections during Nazi times. We know there was a book store on the ground floor of the apartment block in my story and that the family belonged to a publishing dynasty. But no one survives today to tell us what…


Who am I?

World War 2 has always interested me and my curiosity was strengthened a few years ago when my mother told me I was born illegitimate and my father had been the civil engineer building a nearby bomber airfield and a lodger with her parents. She was ashamed of what happened and lost contact with my father before I was born. Consequently, I wrote my first novel Unplanned. I then met the daughter of the Berlin mother in Abandoned in Berlin, and found it natural to pursue this story, given what I had discovered about my own upbringing. The effort has taught me to seek to forgive but never to forget.


I wrote...

Abandoned in Berlin: A True Story

By John R. Cammidge,

Book cover of Abandoned in Berlin: A True Story

What is my book about?

A true story of what happened to a block of Jewish-owned apartments in Berlin. A descendant of the family discovers the building during a visit to Berlin in 2016 and is determined to find out what took place. She learns that her mother, at age 11, became part-owner of the property, but because of her age and ownership, was forcibly placed under guardianship custody by the Nazis in 1933. Read how this arrangement is progressively used to seize the property and why the family flees to Vienna in late 1937.

The story ends in the 1950s when the family fights to recover the building. Judge whether or not justice is delivered. The descendant is advised that no new legal action can be taken.

The Monuments Men

By Robert M. Edsel,

Book cover of The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

Robert Edsel became fascinated by the story of art looting and preservation during WWII after living for a period in Florence. Being a wealthy businessman from Texas, he used his money to bring attention to the story of the men and women who fought to preserve art during WWII. He has written four books on the subject, but The Monuments Men is the most well-rounded and suitable for someone who is beginning to investigate this riveting slice of history. His book was made into a movie starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, and Matt Damon in 2014. 


Who am I?

My interest in this topic began because of a trip to a museum in 2008. I noticed that a painting had been removed from view and a small piece of paper was hanging on the wall where the painting had been. The paper explained that this piece was involved in a court case revolving around whether or not it had been stolen from its Jewish owner by the Nazis during World War II. Nazi cultural appropriation, looting, suppression, and destruction turned out to be one of the most fascinating stories of the entire war. The research for my historical novel took several years, but it allowed me to write a book based on the facts.


I wrote...

The Altarpiece

By Lauren Fogle Boyd,

Book cover of The Altarpiece

What is my book about?

In the suffocating atmosphere of the Third Reich, art becomes a political issue. When the renowned modern artist Dietrich Junger is condemned by Hitler's puritanical artistic purge, his daughter Anke finds herself abandoned by the two men she loved most. An expert on the object of Nazi obsession, the medieval Ghent Altarpiece, Anke must walk a tightrope between her desire to rebel and her instinct to survive. 

Erik Brossler, a young Jewish art historian, was Anke’s childhood sweetheart who escaped to America. He is haunted by their separation and the imminent danger to Europe's priceless art. When America enters the war, Erik's new journey takes him into the heart of the inferno as he searches for art and the great love of his life. 

Rescuing Da Vinci

By Robert M. Edsel,

Book cover of Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe's Great Art - America and Her Allies Recovered It

I chose photo books for my list because I often use photos to help me as I write—either to construct a scene or to provide detail. Because my books are set against the backdrop of the Monuments Men’s work, this book was really the starting point for my writing the trilogy.  

Edsel presents a methodical overview of the vast scope of Nazi art theft in Europe, the destruction wrought on its monuments, and the enormous task of restitution and rebuilding. Seeing the sheer quantity of looted art stacked ceiling-high in endless rows and the faces of the men and women charged with making it right helped me put their work into my fictional work.


Who am I?

In my “day job” I write about architecture, which means I often write about things I see in photos. When I began writing fiction, I continued using photos as inspiration and research. My novels are inspired by my family’s circumstances at the end of World War II and my fascination with the work of the Monuments Men. Photos show me details like a little girl playing with her doll under a sign that declares her building to be at risk of collapse, or a woman using the ruins of a building to hang out the wash. I love finding ways to use these elements in my writing.


I wrote...

The Roses Underneath

By C.F. Yetmen,

Book cover of The Roses Underneath

What is my book about?

It is August 1945 in Wiesbaden, Germany. With the country in ruins, Anna Klein, displaced and separated from her beloved husband, struggles to support herself and her six-year-old daughter. As a typist at the Collecting Point for the US Army’s Monuments Men she barely has her head above water. When the easy-going American Captain Henry Cooper recruits her as his translator, they stumble on a mysterious stash of art, and Anna finds she has a bigger gift for sleuthing than for typing. And Cooper’s penchant for breaking the rules provides an enticing taste of a newfound freedom that might change the future she thought she had planned.

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