Looting, also referred to as sacking, ransacking, 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,natural disaster (where law and civil enforcement are temporarily ineffective), or rioting. 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 governments.
The proceeds of all these activities can be described as booty, loot, plunder, spoils, or pillage.
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 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".
In warfare in ancient times, the spoils of war included the defeated populations, which were often enslaved. The women and children were often absorbed into the victorious country's population. 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.
The term "looting" is also sometimes used to refer to antiquities being removed from countries by unauthorized people, either domestic people breaking the law seeking monetary gain, or by foreign nations, which are usually more interested in prestige or previously, "scientific discovery". An example of this might be the removal of the contents of Egyptian tombs which were transported to museums in Europe. 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). Whether this constitutes "looting" is a debated point, with other parties pointing out that the Europeans were usually given permission of some sort, and that many of the treasures wouldn't have been discovered at all if the Europeans hadn't funded and organized the expeditions or digs that located them. Many of these antiquities have already been returned to their country of origin voluntarily.
FAFN soldier caught by French Foreign Legion troops.
During a disaster, police and military 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, and where the line between unnecessary "looting" and necessary "scavenging" lies, is often a dilemma for governments. In other cases, looting may be tolerated or even encouraged by governments for political or other reasons.
Around the same time of the Hyksos invasion and occupation of Egypt (1650 BC – 1550 BC), Hebrew tradition has it that both Abraham and Moses were given property of Egypt by God. "In Genesis 15:14, the despoliation is an act of justifiable vengeance upon the oppressors of Israel. Yet in Exodus, God uses the plagues as an act of mercy to bring a knowledge of himself to Israel, Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and to the ends of the earth." See Hyksos Iconoclasm and Genesis 13:2 and Genesis 15:14 and Exodus 12:36.
In 870 AD, the Byzantine city of Melite (now Mdina, Malta) was captured by the Aghlabids under Sawāda Ibn Muḥammad. The city was destroyed, its churches looted and its population massacred. Marble from the city's churches was used to build the castle of Sousse.
Roman Catholic troops of Imperial Field Marshal Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly committed the Sack of Magdeburg in 1631. Magdeburg's civilian population was quickly reduced from 30,000 to 5,000, giving rise to a new term in German for annihilation by atrocities: "Magdeburgization".
Between 1804 and 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte engaged in massive looting throughout Europe and Africa.
In 1812, British and Portuguese soldiers sacked the Spanish city of Badajoz after they had captured it by siege. It was three days before the men were brought back into order.
In 1860, European allied forces burned and looted the Yuan Ming Yuan in Beijing, and in 1900, the European Eight-Nation Alliance looted Beijing when they invaded China to put down the Boxer Uprising. The extent to which Europeans looted is challenged by more recent evidence from Noel du Boulay, commanding officer in charge of security at the Summer Palace during the Boxer rebellion, who records that the Russians had already looted the Palace before the Europeans assumed responsibility. On 7 October 1900 he officially reports the condition of the Palace as he first encountered it. One of Du Boulay's main duties was to prevent further looting. An extensive catalogue of items in the palace was formally agreed with Shih Hsu, President of the Board of Ceremonies and Comptroller of the Imperial household when the Palace was handed back on 14 September 1901.
In 1901, After Filipino troops decimated the Americans in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, the Americans returned, massacring men and boys and taking the 3 bells of the church.
In 1863, anti-draft riots in New York City, largely by Irish-American Catholics, during the American Civil War resulted in four days of arson, looting and violence against Protestants, the wealthy, and the city's free black population.
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.
After the United States occupied Iraq in 2003, 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.
In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was widespread looting in the flooded regions of New Orleans, Louisiana US.
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.
During the 2011 London riots, gangs of youths undertook looting in a number of areas across the capital. It has been suggested that rioting may have been organised, 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. The 2011 London looting was copied on subsequent nights in other cities around England, including Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.
In 2018, researchers and archaeologists urged Albania to protect underwater Greek and Roman artifacts and shipwrecks. They were in danger of falling prey to looters or treasure hunters if not properly protected. Some amphorae had already been looted and are frequently seen decorating restaurants along the Albanian coastline.
^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, ISBN0-521-39442-2, 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."
^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".
^(in Polish) J. R. Kudelski, Tajemnice nazistowskiej grabieży polskich zbiorów sztuki, Warszawa 2004.
^(in 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 the Egyptian government about Nefertiti."
^Will Nefertiti Return to Egypt for a Brief Visit? Egypt Asks Germany for a Majestic Loan by Stan Parchin (June 17, 2006) about.com