In 1863 US President Abraham Lincoln summoned Francis Lieber, a German-American jurist and political philosopher, to write a legal code to regulate Union soldiers' behavior toward Confederation prisoners, noncombatants, spies and property. The resulting General Orders No.100 or the Lieber Code, legally recognized cultural property as a protected category in war. The Lieber Code had far-reaching results as it became the basis for the Hague Convention of 1907 and 1954 and has led to Standing Rules of Engagement (ROE) for US troops today. A portion of the ROE clauses instruct US troops not to attack "schools, museums, national monuments, and any other historical or cultural sites unless they are being used for a military purpose and pose a threat".
Méndez de Vigo has instructed the Department of Culture of the Catalan government, now under his leadership, to obey a provisional judicial order that dictates the return of the objects to their former location in Aragon, Catalonia’s neighboring region. Even though this judicial order could still be disputed, the minister demands its immediate implementation.
Some scholars employ the idea that identity is fluid and constructed, especially national identity of modern nation-states, to argue that the post-colonial countries have no real claims to the artifacts plundered from their borders since their cultural connections to the artifacts are indirect and equivocal. This argument asserts that artifacts should be viewed as universal cultural property and should not be divided among artificially created nation-states. Moreover, that encyclopedic museums are a testament to diversity, tolerance and the appreciation of many cultures. Other scholars would argue that this reasoning is a continuation of colonialist discourse attempting to appropriate the ancient art of colonized states and incorporate it into the narrative of Western history.
Opposed to the nationalist, proprietary, and even tribal concerns of such regimes, Cuno believes, are the benevolent interests of public museums. They hover above the sectarian conflicts gripping much of the world, drawing human beings together by demonstrating the interrelatedness of all civilizations. Cuno exalts “the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world’s artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all”—the ideal repository, in his view, for artifacts that illuminate this legacy. He advocates a return to the system of partage, whereby foreign-led excavation teams provide archaeological expertise to source countries in return for a share of the finds, to be exhibited in public galleries elsewhere. Further, he urges compromises that would allow museums to display unprovenanced antiquities—particularly those acquired before the stricter trafficking laws of recent decades—reminding his readers of the aesthetic and educational rewards to be reaped by their presence in major collections.
War and the subsequent looting of defeated peoples has been common practice since ancient times. The stele of King Naram-Sin of Akkad, which is now displayed in the Louvre Museum in Paris, is one of the earliest works of art known to have been looted in war. The stele commemorating Naram-Sin's victory in a battle against the Lullubi people in 2250 BCE was taken as war plunder about a thousand years later by the Elamites who relocated it to their capital in Susa, Iran. There, it was uncovered in 1898 by French archaeologists.