After Seizures, the Met Sets a Plan to Scour Collections for Looted Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which faces increased scrutiny from law enforcement officials, academics and the news media over whether its collection contains loot, announced Tuesday that it will update its holdings and policies with a view to returning the items. announced a major new effort to revisit the Turns out it has a problematic history.

A core feature of the new plan is the museum’s decision to hire the strongest provenance team of any museum in America.

The move comes as the Metropolitan Museum of Art — one of the world’s largest museums and home to more than 1.5 million works spanning the past 5,000 years — has recently been asked by law enforcement officials and foreign governments to repatriate the works. I am influenced by the fact that my voice is raised. say you have no right to

Over the past year, Cambodian authorities have enlisted the help of federal authorities to secure the return of artifacts deemed looted. Separately, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office seized dozens of antiques from the museum and returned them to countries including Turkey, Egypt and Italy.

The museum’s prestige and the extent of its efforts, made clear in a letter to museum staff, is how other institutions deal with mounting pressure to return looted and evidenced antiquities. It may affect

In a letter, museum director Max Hollein said: “As a preeminent voice in the global art world, it is the responsibility of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to pursue more focused and proactive research into specific areas of our collection. He added, “With the changing climate and the emergence of new and additional information on cultural properties, we need to devote additional resources to this work.”

To better address these issues, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has developed an initiative to “expand, facilitate and enhance the study of all works arriving at the museum from art dealers under investigation,” Hollein said. .

Most importantly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will add a Provenance Manager and three Provenance Researchers, building on the curator’s and conservator’s efforts.

Other museums, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, have had dedicated provenance researchers over the years, often assisted by aides. However, his new four-person unit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is believed to be as large as the unit deployed by the United States arts institution.

Additionally, Hollein said in the letter, the Metropolitan Museum of Art plans to “convene thought leaders, advocates and opinion makers in the field of cultural heritage” to share more of their work in the field. said.The letter referred to a panel discussion on previous agreements it made with the Nigerian Ministry of Culture About returning and lending works

Finally, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has formed a committee of 18 curators, conservators and others to review its legal and public policies and practices regarding its collections.

Hollein said most of the objects of questionable provenance in the Metropolitan Museum of Art were acquired between 1970 and 1990, a period of rapid growth for the museum, according to his letter. It was a time when less information was available and less scrutiny of provenance. “Currently, it is estimated that the investigation will include more than a few hundred objects,” his letter said.

The period since 1970 is a key focus as it ushered in an era in which many countries adopted the principles of the UNESCO conventions to combat the illegal trade in antiquities. Museums began to set guidelines accordingly, and many museums will not accept artefacts unless there is clear documented evidence that they left their country of origin before 1970 or were legally exported after 1970. I agree not to get

However, follow-through by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums has been imperfect, and in many cases the Metropolitan Museum of Art accepted artifacts with no history other than the names of the dealers or donors who provided them, based on the records they kept. It. Thomas Hobing, curator and later director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, admitted that the pursuit sometimes trumps all other concerns in order to retrieve the trophy artifact after leaving the museum.

“It used to be that you don’t get what you know has been stolen. I’m here. “Today’s attitude is not to get something unless you know it wasn’t stolen. 180 degrees wrong.”

In later years the rules were more strictly followed, but museum curators sometimes took the dealer’s word that the object had been acquired legally. Museums had difficulty ascertaining the provenance of works, as foreign countries were in turmoil and there was no government to verify them.

Cambodian authorities have said in recent years that at least 45 artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art were stolen from ancient sites there. The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently removed several items from its exhibits, but refused to show internal documents from Cambodian authorities that could strengthen or undermine the museum’s proper title for its objects. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has asked Cambodia for proof that the work was stolen.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new approach comes as major museums around the world face similar challenges. The British Museum continues talks with Greek officials who have long sought the return of the Parthenon marble. The Vatican announced last year that it would donate fragments of the Parthenon, long stored in the Vatican Museums, to the Greek Orthodox Church. German and US museums are returning Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

Some critics want the museum to do more than just keep ancient artifacts from being stolen. Even when the law is not broken, they insist that museums place greater emphasis on social justice, ensure that objects are not acquired by exploiting societies weakened by poverty, colonialism, war, or political instability, I would like them to be returned if they are found.

Elizabeth Marlowe, director of the museum studies program at Colgate University, said in an interview last year of the appropriate response by the institution: “It’s a different landscape.”

Over the years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has returned many objects that were looted or found to be of questionable provenance. For example, in 2008, in 1972 he returned to Italy the famous Euphronios Krater, which he bought for $1 million.

But the pace is picking up. Metropolitan Airlines said it returned 45 of her items to various countries last year. Despite criticism that it did not act quickly enough to address the issue, it said it was and will continue to be cooperative going forward.

Dating back to 2015, about 15 items in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection have been identified as belonging to Manhattan art dealer Subhash Kapoor, accused of being one of the world’s most stolen goods smugglers. I was. In 2019, The Met promised to review the item, but didn’t announce it until it was returned 2 months ago.

In his letter, Hollein emphasized that even with the added resources, the provenance process can be a delicate and sometimes time-consuming process.

“Despite the urgency implied by the media environment, we must be diligent, thoughtful, and fair in evaluating the evidence presented,” he said in the letter. is committed to doing it right, and equally committed to taking the time necessary to do so.”

The new plan also appears to better prepare the Metropolitan to offer a counter-argument if presented with a subpoena or foreclosure order from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s Antiques Trading Division.

Prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos, who heads the unit, seized items under the Stolen Goods Act from many private collectors and other museums, including the J. Paul Getty Museum. , life-size terracotta statue from 300 BC

Last year, however, the Met collection received particular attention. In September, the agency announced that he had seized 27 antiquities worth more than $13 million from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, claiming they had all been looted. They include the ancient Greek kyryx, or cup, returned to Egypt and Italy.

In March, investigators announced they had seized a headless bronze statue of the ancient Roman emperor Septimius Severus.

An ancient statue, thought by some experts to represent Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, was recently seized from the Met by investigators in Manhattan.credit…Via Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

In an interview, Hollein said the expansion of provenance research was in no way motivated by a sense that museums were overwhelmed when it came to understanding the history of their own collections. is working with law enforcement, and welcomed the district attorney’s findings as “very powerful and revelatory.”

“We are in constant dialogue, sometimes facing evidence that we have never seen before, and that drives us,” said Hollein. “There is a partnership.

In his letter, Hollein attempted to describe what he saw as the changing cultural practices facing museums today. “We live in a time when the idea of ​​a cosmopolitan, global society is being questioned, and more nationalist voices are embracing cultural relics as evidence of national identity rather than as ambassadors for their people. It’s happening.”

In an interview, he said he was also concerned that people were losing sight of the important mission carried out by the museum.

“We’re not taking things and closing them just because we want to own things,” he said. “We collect things because we want to share them, we want to contextualize them, we want people to understand more about them. A place, a very good place to connect these objects with other communities and cultures.”

Still, Hollein admitted he expects researchers to find additional items that need to be returned.

“Results have been mixed, and with clear findings and clear explanations, we will see more reparations by the Met,” he said.

“Anything that entered our collection illegally should not be in our collection,” he added.

Tom Mashburg contributed to the report.

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