Manhattan D.A. Seizes Another 27 Pieces from the Met on Behalf of Italy and Egypt

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Thursday, September 8, 2022
Author: 
Bruce Zagaris
Volume: 
38
Issue: 
9
Abstract: 

On August 31, 2022, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported that investigators from the  Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU), working with federal officials from the Department of Homeland Security,  have increasingly focused on and seized allegedly stolen art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  On September 3, the New York Times reported that investigators from the Manhattan DA’s ATU [1]seized 27 pieces worth more than $13 million from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, claiming that the objects were stolen and must be returned to Italy and Egypt.[2]

                The Manhattan D.A.’s antiquities trafficking unit, which executed the seizure, was created in 2017 to combat the trafficking of antique objects.  A major purpose of the unit is to recover cultural objects from other countries that do not come with proper province and therefore should be returned to their countries of origin.   The ATU has raided and seized objects from the Met several times before.[3]

                According to the ICIJ, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has secured nine warrants to seize ancient works from the Met since 2017. Six of those warrants are from the past year alone and cover more than 30 ancient relics.[4]

                The Manhattan DA’s Office, in conjunction with the U.S. Government, has scheduled ceremonies for the week of September 12 to return 21 items to Italy and six to Egypt.[5]

Increased Enforcement Efforts against Antiquities Trafficking

                The seizures are significant because they indicate heightened efforts by the ATU to close backlogged repatriation cases and act against the theft, looting, and illicit trafficking of cultural property.[6]

                In June, ATU authorities seized five ancient works from the Met’s Egyptian collection, after an international relics smuggling scandal that saw the former director of the Louvre Museum arrested in France facing conspiracy charges.[7]

                In February, the ATU secured two warrants to seize two allegedly stolen pieces in different Met galleries – a Libyan statue of a veiled woman and an Egyptian bronze sculpture depicting a kneeling figure.[8]

                A problem in terms of the Met’s collection of antiquities is that some of the items seized were obtained from or handled by persons convicted and/or suspected of trafficking in antiquities.  For instance, in 2011, the Italian government, after a decade-long investigation of Gianfranco Becchina for antiquities trafficking, confiscated 6,300 Greco-Roman artifacts from him.  However, a court dismissed the criminal charges on statute of limitation grounds because the looting dated to the early 1970s.   A Greek court convicted Becchina of receiving stolen antiquities.[9]

                The Met obtained one item, a terra-cotta statuette of a Greek goddess from about 400 B.C., as a gift in 2000 from Robin Symes, an antiquities dealer.   Symes participated in the sale of a large statue of Aphrodite bought by the Getty Museum in 1988..  In 2007, the Getty Museum agreed to return it to Italy.[10]

                In terms of value, the 21 Italian objects the ATU seized from the Met in July is estimated at $10 million.  The six Egyptian objects, seized in February and May, are estimated to be worth $3.2 million.[11]

Analysis

                One question is whether the Met and other museums and galleries should conduct more investigation of the provenance of their collection not only when they buy new items, but also when public information reveals that persons involved in the objects which they acquired have been found to have participated in looting.  The Met’s standard policy concerning repatriation requires countries wanting objects repatriated to make a formal request and prove beyond doubt that the objects were looted.  A consensus is starting to develop that museums should be more proactive in checking their collection and provenances of objects, especially in light of new information.[12]

                In this regard, the Met said ”Each of these objects has unique  and complex circumstances, and with all, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been fully supportive of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office investigations.”  The Met also acknowledged that the norms of collecting have changed and the Met has constantly reviewed its policies and procedures in this regard.[13]  The question is whether the recent seizures will make the Met make a new review of its policies and procedures.

                The ATU partnered in the seizures and returns with HSI. U.S. federal customs laws provide HSI special agents the authority, jurisdiction, and responsibility to take the leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illicit importation and distribution of stolen or looted cultural property. Through the Cultural Property, Art, and Antiquities program (CPAA), HSI distributes investigative leads to special agents who work alongside international, federal, state, and local partners, in addition to private institutions, to pursue individuals and networks who smuggle cultural property, art and antiquities. These cases include investigating and returning stolen modern art, looted sarcophagi and dinosaur fossils, and smuggled coins or ancient tablets.

                HSI agents are trained in a partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Heritage Center and the Smithsonian Institution on the identification, authentication, and handling of these objects and artifacts, which supports their return to their rightful owners through cultural repatriation. Since 2007, this collaboration has resulted in the training of more than 400 law enforcement personnel who are responsible for investigating these crimes and identifying and handling cultural property.

                Once HSI completes a cultural property investigation, it coordinates the return of smuggled objects or artifacts to their rightful owners. Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 12,000 objects to more than 30 countries.[14]



[1]    Spencer Woodman and Malia Politzer, Flurry of seizures intensify pressure on the Met over artifacts linked to accused traffickers, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Aug. 31, 2022 https://www.icij.org/investigations/hidden-treasures/flurry-of-seizures-intensify-pressure-on-the-met-over-artifacts-linked-to-accused-traffickers

[2]    Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley, Antiquities Seized From the Met, N.Y. Times, Sept. 3, 2022, at C1, col. 2.

[3]    David Guido, Manhattan DA Raids the Met, Seizes Antiquities for Repatriation, Sept. 3, 2022, https://www.art-insder.com/manhattan-da-raids-the-met-seizes-antiquities-for-repatriation/4064.

[4]    Woodman and Politzer, supra.

[5]    Mashberg and Bowley, supra.

[6]    Jacob Knutson, New York investigators seize over $13 million worth of artifacts from Met, Axios, Sept. 2, 2022.

[7]    Woodman and Politzer, supra.

[8]    Id.

[9]    Mashberg and Bowley, supra.

[10]   Id.

[11]   Id.

[12]   Joseph Konig, Millions in looted antiquities seized from Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.NY1.com, Sept. 2, 2022.

[13]   Id.

[14]    HSI, Cultural Property, Art, and Antiquities Smuggling: Investigating the Illicit Importation and Distribution of Stolen or Looted Cultural Property, https://www.ice.gov/investigations/cultural-property-art-and-antiquities-smuggling  (accessed Sept. 5, 2022).