Stolen Ancient Tomb Carvings Sat in Storage at the Met Museum for Decades. Now, They’ve Been Returned to China

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A pair of 7th-century stone carvings collectively valued at roughly $3.5 million have been repatriated to China, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced this week. 

The two pieces are believed to have been cut from a funerary platform in a Chinese tomb sometime during the early 1990s. They were loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998 by the prominent collector and philanthropist Shelby White, who now sits on the institution’s board of trustees.  

The objects have lived in the museum’s storage facilities for the last 25 years, and have never been publicly displayed. It’s unclear how White acquired the pieces.  

So excited to attend Chinese cultural property repatriation ceremony @ManhattanDA. The return of two 7th-century carvings symbolizes our cooperation in protecting cultural heritage. It will enhance friendship between our two peoples & bring positive energy into China-US relations pic.twitter.com/Q7P6ou7yW2

— Huang Ping 黄屏 (@CGHuangPingNY) May 10, 2023

The relics were returned during a repatriation ceremony at the Chinese Consulate on Tuesday, May 9. 

“Cultural property embodies human wisdom and creativity,” with Consul General Huang Ping in a statement. “They are the link between the past and the present. They are also an important bridge connecting different countries and cultures.”  

“That is why we regard the crackdown on crimes against cultural property a sacred mission,” he added. 

The ornate stone carvings, which span multiple feet in length and weigh over 1,000 pounds, depict scenes from the Zoroastrian religion. Among the symbols etched on their surface are demons, dogs, and masked caretakers of the sacred flame.  

“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,” D.A. Bragg said. “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.” 

Today we announced the return of two 7th-century stone carvings from a funerary platform, collectively valued at nearly $3.5 million, to the people of China. Learn more here: https://t.co/VpBmfdH62G

— Alvin Bragg (@ManhattanDA) May 9, 2023

The carvings are just two of 89 antiquities from 10 different countries seized by Bragg’s office as part of a criminal investigation into White’s collection. Together, the objects are valued at nearly $69 million. 

The investigation, overseen by the chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, goes back years. In June 2021, the D.A.’s Office issued a warrant for the search of the collector’s New York home, where authorities seized five artifacts. Another search, conducted in April of 2022, yielded 18 additional objects. 

When asked for comment by email, Bogdanos simply said, “We did what we are legally authorized—indeed mandated—to do. We conducted a criminal investigation, we seized a series of stolen antiquities (including the stunning Chinese carvings), and we repatriated them to their lawful owner, here China.” 

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