It has been announced that over the course of this year, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has seized 27 antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum of Art which collectively are valued at more than $13 million.
The items will be included in repatriation ceremonies scheduled for this week, in which 58 objects will be returned to Italy (21 from the Met) and a further 16 will go back to Egypt (6 from the Met). Significant artifacts which are included in this repatriation are a marble head of the Greek goddess Athena dating from around 200 BCE and a terracotta kylix – a drinking cup – from 470 BCE, which alone has been valued at $1.2 million. The latter item was purchased from the Switzerland-based gallery of Gianfranco Becchina, who has been suspected of running a trafficking antiquities ring for many years. Becchina has been convicted of receiving stolen antiquities in the past, and in Italy an investigation into him revealed that a hoard of 6,300 Greco-Roman artifacts were looted. In total, 8 of the items seized from the Met were purchased via Becchina. Another item seized which also has connections to a dealer whose activities have been deemed suspicious is a terracotta statuette of a Greek goddess from circa 400 BCE, which is valued at $400,000, and was a gift to the museum from antiquities dealer Robin Symes. A statue of Aphrodite that Symes sold to the Getty Museum in 1988 for $18 million has since been repatriated to Italy.
The office who investigated and seized these objects is the New York antiquities trafficking unit, which was set up in 2017. District Attorney Alvin Bragg said that the office’s investigations have “led to the repatriation of nearly 2,000 objects”. Bragg further stated that “it should be no secret to collectors, art museums and auction houses that they may be in possession of pieces from known traffickers that were illegally looted […] The investigations conducted by my office have clearly exposed these networks and put into the public domain a wealth of information the art world can proactively use to return antiquities to where they rightfully belong.”
Whilst the Met’s repatriation policy requires that countries making an official claim on an object must provide proof that it was stolen or illegally exported, critics have increasingly sought to shift the onus onto public museums to investigate whether objects in their collection were unlawfully attained. On the recent repatriation of objects from the Met to Cambodia, Sopheap Meas, the deputy director of antiquities management of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said, “the burden of proof should be on the museums to show that they have the right to legally own Cambodia’s national treasures”. Similarly, Derek Fincham, a professor specialising in cultural heritage law at the South Texas College of Law, said that the Met should be doing more: “the best institutions treat their collections as part of the public trust and seriously research the history and acquisition of their collection.”
The Met have, however, reiterated that “the museum is a leader in the field in comprehensively reviewing individual matters and it has returned many pieces based upon thorough review and research – oftentimes in partnership with law enforcement and outside experts”.