The Metropolitan Museum of Art is now taking new measures to identify antiquities in their collection stolen from their countries of origin and smuggled into New York City. The move comes following years of seizures of priceless artifacts from Upper East Side institution by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
Earlier this month, prosecutors returned two 7th-century stone carvings valued at more than $3 million to the people of China, which they say were stolen from a tomb and smuggled out of that country in the early 1990s.
Investigators say they seized the carvings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2023 after having been on loan to the institution for more than two decades, one of them kept in the museum’s storage area for a quarter century.
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“It is a shame that these two incredible antiquities were stolen and at least one remained largely hidden from the public view for nearly three decades,” said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, announcing the repatriation of the carvings on May 9th, “While their total value is more than $3 million, the incredible detail and beauty of these pieces can never be truly captured by a price tag.”
These announcements are an almost monthly occurrence for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Antiquities Trafficking Unit, which has returned nearly 950 stolen antiquities valued at more than $165 million to 19 countries under DA Bragg. While not all have a nexus to The Met, many recent seizures were loaned to the Upper East Side cultural institution with false provenance, the history of ownership.
That includes five human and animal figures carved from marble called the Neolithic Family Group that date back to 5000 to 3500 B.C.E. and valued at $3 million, on display at The Met until this March, when investigators took them following a criminal investigation into Shelby White, a private art collector and trustee for The Met, who had loaned them to the museum, in addition to the stone carvings.
Meanwhile, Upper East Side billionaire, art collector and hedge fund founder Michael Steinhardt surrendered $70 million in stolen ancient art, some found on loan to The Met, and prosecutors slapped Steinhardt with the first-ever lifetime ban on buying antiquities in 2021.
Facing heightened scrutiny by law enforcement and media coverage over the pilfered pieces in The Met’s collection, director Max Hollein announced a new initiative to identify stolen art before it gets seized, noting the “changing legal perspectives” and “evolving contemporary views” of ethical issues at play.
“We will broaden, expedite, and intensify our research into all works that came to the Museum from art dealers who have been under investigation,” Hollein told museum staff in a letter earlier this month.
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“Most of these objects came to the Museum in the period between 1970 and 1990, a period of both very fast and wide growth at The Met, and a period when there was less information available and less scrutiny on the provenance of many of these works,” Hollein continued, “We currently estimate that this examination will include several hundred or more objects.”
To facilitate those investigations, The Met is hiring a four-person provenance team, including a manager, dedicated to supplementing the research capabilities of the museum’s other curators and conservators.
“Primarily through gifts and purchases from the art market, our predecessors built a museum that today is one of the world’s premier custodians of art,” Hollein told staffers, “In our collecting, we are guided by the laws and practices of our time and more broadly by our ideals of the contributions that a museum can make to society.”
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