Wave of seizures intensifies pressure on Met over artefacts linked to accused traffickers
The largest museum in the United States, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is under increasing scrutiny by police and federal agents investigating international art smuggling.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has won nine warrants to seize old works from the Met since 2017, according to records reviewed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and shared with reporting partner Discovered finances. Six of these warrants date from the last year alone and cover more than 30 ancient relics.
In the largest seizure to date, in mid-July, state and federal agents confiscated 21 allegedly stolen ancient works worth more than $11 million. The relics included a marble head of the Greek goddess Athena from around 200 BC and a pair of statues of the mythical Greek brothers Castor and Pollux from the Roman Empire, according to a Search warrant.
Another warrant targeting the prestigious collection – this one for a sixth-century coin depicting a Hindu deity from present-day India – was signed by a judge on Tuesday. The room stay in the spotlight in the museum’s digital catalog.
These two most recent seizures have not been previously reported.
“The numbers are adding up fast,” said Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, an organization that campaigns against trafficking in cultural artifacts, of relics the Met has turned over to US authorities or repatriated. “In what other context could you make headlines so often for holding stolen property and facing no consequences?”
In a statement, Met spokesman Kenneth Weine said the museum is committed to collecting antiquities responsibly and has an obligation to search the ownership records of the pieces and to be transparent about them. Regarding the July seizures, he said the museum supports the district attorney’s investigation and the repatriation of the pieces.
“The museum is a leader in the area of scrutinizing individual issues, and it has returned many pieces based on scrutiny – often in partnership with law enforcement and outside experts. “, Weine said. “Collection standards have changed significantly, and the Met’s policies and procedures in this regard have been under constant review over the past 20 years.”
Many museums have faced increasing pressure to repatriate antiquities of dubious origin. But investigators’ interest in pieces from the Met’s collections and heightened media coverage have experts wondering whether the institution might be forced into closer scrutiny of its acquisition practices – and what it could mean for the museum’s large collection of alumni. treasures.
As the ICIJ reported last year, the Met’s Asian collection includes Cambodian antiquities that passed through the hands of indicted art dealer Douglas Latchford. The New York Times recently reported that the Cambodian government had enlisted the United States to pressure the Met for the return of dozens of Latchford-related items.
Critics say the Met’s repatriation policy is often unreasonable, requiring countries claiming a relic to provide irrefutable proof that it was stolen or illegally exported.
The museum has called on Cambodians, for example, to present ‘evidence’ that items linked to Latchford have been stolen – even though many items from its Khmer collection were acquired during a time of rampant looting, and some have been sold or donated to the museum by indicted and convicted art dealers. In an interview with The Times, former Met curator for South and Southeast Asian art, Martin Lerner, acknowledged that he relied on “the goodwill and integrity” of dealers like Latchford instead of independently researching the origin of a relic.
As a major public institution, the Met relies on a good reputation for its survival. Most of its operating budget comes from donations or public funding from the City of New York.
Growing scrutiny and seizures by federal authorities follow several high-profile antiques scandals that have tarnished the Met’s reputation.
In September 2021, authorities seized three pieces from the Met that belonged to one of the museum’s billionaire donors, Michael Steinhardt. The action was part of a non-prosecution agreement between Steinhardt and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office that required him to relinquish more than $70 million in looted antiquities. Some of these pieces had been loaned to the Met.
The agreement prohibits Steinhardt from collecting antiques for life. A Met gallery of Greek antiquities is named after Steinhardt and his wife. The Met has not commented on Steinhardt’s forfeiture and has released no public information about the seizures.
A spokesperson for the Met did not respond to questions about the museum’s relationship with Steinhardt.
Smuggling scandal in ancient Egypt
In another high-profile antiquities scandal in 2019, prosecutors seized a massive golden sarcophagus from the Met, which had purchased the piece from a dealer showing fake original documents. An investigation by New York State authorities revealed that the relic was stolen from Egypt. The curators they met bought it and had it shipped to the United States, even though there were red flags about its true origin, according to an investigative summary from state prosecutors.
In response to questions about the coffin, the Met said it fell victim to an international criminal organization that deceived its employees. The museum said it has strengthened its collections policy to “provide more rigorous requirements for verifying the authenticity of documentation and issued additional internal guidance for provenance research with respect to the acquisition of antiquities, verification of documentation and contacts with source countries”.
In June this year, authorities seized five additional ancient works from the museum’s Egyptian collection, following an international relic smuggling scandal that saw the former director of the Louvre museum arrested in France facing charges. conspiracy charges.
In February, the Manhattan District Attorney obtained two warrants to seize two pieces allegedly stolen from different Met galleries – a Libyan statue of a veiled woman and an Egyptian bronze sculpture of a kneeling figure which experts say represents either a ruler or a priest.
The investigators responsible for the seizures are part of an antiquities trafficking unit led by Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant Manhattan district attorney. They worked with federal agents as part of Homeland Security Investigations, a unit of the US Department of Homeland Security.
Bogdanos, who previously served in the US Army where he hunted for looted artifacts for Iraqi museums, said the July confiscations involved statues that passed through the networks of two convicted antiquities traffickers – Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina – and a third dealer named Pasquale Camera, who, according to court documents at New York, was known to be involved in the “illegal trafficking of Italian objects” before his death in 1995.
The Met has not been accused of wrongdoing in connection with any of the antique seizures.
The sheer size of the Met’s antiquities collection is among the largest in the world and exposes it to greater liability for claims of possession of looted works. It’s also common — though not ideal — for museums to have thin records of origin, known as provenance, for ancient pieces acquired decades ago.
Bogdanos says his office is not investigating the Met, but significant pieces of its collection have been swept up in investigations mostly focused on specific traffickers. During its five years of operation, his unit has begun to build a more comprehensive picture of international trafficking networks and is receiving more and more advice from the public. “The pace is picking up,” Bogdanos said of the artwork seizures from his office. “Expect to pick up more.”
ICIJ collaborates with Malia Politzer, journalist at Discovered financeson antiquities market surveys.