An examination of the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art calls into question the origins of many of its antiquities holdings, with more than 1,000 works that once belonged to individuals either indicted or convicted of antiquities crimes.
“The Met sets the tone for museums around the world,” Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, which looks to put an end to the trafficking of cultural artifacts, told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. “If the Met is letting all of these things fall through the cracks, what hope do we have for the rest of the art market?”
The ICIJ report investigated the origins of the Met’s antiquities collection, as well as the acquisition practices that allowed it to build up its holdings even after many nations introduced laws preventing the export of its historic cultural artifacts.
“Clearly, collecting standards have changed in recent decades,” a Met spokesperson told Artnet News in an email. “The field has evolved, and the Met has been a leader in this progress. In addition to our commitment with all laws and professional standards, our actions are driven by three activities: research, transparency, and collaboration.”
In recent years, the Met has voluntarily restituted numerous items from its holdings identified as looted art. The museum has also been the subject of several seizures from prosecutors, who confiscated five Egyptian artifacts in June and an additional 27 artifacts in September, to name just two incidents. Also targeted was Met donor Michael Steinhardt, who has a gallery at the museum named in his honor. After investigators seized over 100 works from his collection in 2021, Steinhardt agreed to a lifetime ban on collecting antiquities.
Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan who leads the office’s antiquities trafficking unit, has spent the past five years investigating international trafficking rings. He told ICIJ that seizures of looted antiquities will likely grow as authorities continue to develop a better understanding of the illicit market for these valuable artifacts.
The Met opened in 1880 with an initial purchase of just 174 paintings. Building an institutional collection to rival that of much older institutions in Paris and London was a tall order—and one that then-director Thomas Hoving took seriously, kicking off a major buying spree in the 1960s that brought in valuable artifacts from all over the world, including Greece, Italy, Egypt, India, and Cambodia.
To make it all happen, Hoving relied on an extensive address book of “smugglers and fixers” that “was longer than anyone else’s in the field,” he admitted in a 1994 memoir.
When it came to building up the Met’s antiquities holdings, Hoving viewed working with smugglers as a necessary means to an end—and admitted if a nation proved something was stolen, the museum would have to return it, as “we took our chances when we bought the material.”
That legacy can be seen in the ICIJ report, which identifies 1,109 pieces—309 currently on view—that belonged to people indicted or convicted of antiquities crimes before they wound up at the Met. Fewer than half of them have provenance records that explain how they left their country of origin—a common issue that makes it difficult to determine if they were smuggled out in violation of a nation’s laws restricting the international sale of antiquities.
Hoving wrote in his memoir of having a change of heart about collaborating with smugglers after attending UNESCO hearings on looted antiquities and changing the museum’s collecting practices. But there are risks in acquiring antiquities to this day—which the Met learned the hard way when Kim Kardashian posed at the 2018 Met gala with a shiny golden mummy that matched her metallic dress.
The photo-op led investigators to discover that the recently acquired work had been looted during the 2011 revolution in Egypt, and transported out of the country with a forged export license. The Met had no choice but to return it.
Other restitutions may soon follow.
The ICIJ report highlighted a statue of Shreedhar Vishnu, a Hindu protector god, that the Met recently removed from its online collection listing, suggesting its imminent return to Nepal. Thieves stole the figure from a shrine in the village of Bungmati in the 1980s, disrupting local religious rituals. A collector ended up donating the 20-inch statue to the Met a decade later, where it remained until spotted in 2021 by the anonymous Facebook account the Lost Arts of Nepal.
Based on archival photographs of Nepali temples, the organization believes it has identified three additional looted relics now part of the Met’s collection. A hand-painted wooden statue of the Goddess of Dance, or Nrityadevi, is allegedly from the Buddhist temple of I Baha Bahi in Kathmandu Valley, while an ornate wooden bracket is reportedly from a temple at Bhaktapur.
Though there has been heavy looting in Nepal and Kashmir, only three of the Met’s 250 antiquities from those regions have any records about how they initially left their country of origin. Nepal has had an antiquities export ban in place since 1956, meaning that many works acquired internationally after that year are likely stolen.
“Having these Nepali pieces on display, it’s like having a heap of cocaine in the middle of the room,” Erin Thompson, an adviser with the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, told ICIJ.
The collection of the late Samuel Eilenberg is the only provenance record for about 15 percent of the Met’s Nepali collection, and 31 percent of its Kashmiri holdings. Eilenberg’s record is clean, but he had ties with the dealers Douglas Latchford, who was charged with trafficking in looted Cambodian antiquities before his death in 2020, and Jonathan P. Rosen, charged in an Italian antiquities trafficking case in 1997.
Last year, Cambodia accused the Met of owning 33 objects from Latchford. The Denver Art Museum previously agreed to restitute four Cambodian antiquities tied to Latchford, while Netscape creator James H. Clark gave 35 Southeast Asian antiquities purchased from the disgraced dealer to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Institutions that have returned allegedly looted artifacts that came from Rosen include the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. And Rosen’s business partner, the late Robert E. Hecht, also faced smuggling charges in Italy on multiple occasions, though the case was dismissed due to the statute of limitations.
Today, over 20 works in the Met’s collection came from Hecht, who continued selling to the institution even while under investigation. The museum restituted a Greek vase it bought from him for $1 million to Italy in 2008—but still has seven more, and no records about how they left their home countries. There are also seven works in the Met collection from the gallery of the convicted antiquities smuggler Gianfranco Becchina.
Another red flag name that pops up across the Met’s collection is Subhash Kapoor, a dealer convicted last year to 10 years in jail in India for antiquities smuggling. The museum has 85 pieces linked to Kapoor or his gallery, including Celestial Dancer, a major work acquired by a donation in 2015—four years after Kapoor’s initial arrest. The Met has removed information from its online collection archives noting that the work once “ornamented a north Indian Hindu temple” in present-day Uttar Pradesh.
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