More than 70 stolen antiquities, some dating back more than 2,000 years, were seized from collections in the United States and returned to their countries of origin, Italy and Egypt, this week.
Prized items included a mummy portrait, a marble head of the goddess Athena, and an intricately painted drinking cup.
Their return came after a series of search warrants issued by the Manhattan District Attorney that targeted private collectors as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.
Of the 74 antiques, valued at more than $22 million, 27 were seized from the Met, authorities said.
“[The] the pieces represent thousands of years of rich history, but traffickers all over Italy have used looters to steal these items and line their pockets,” District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr. told About the parts sent back to Italy this week. for a long time they sat in museums, houses and galleries that had no legitimate claim to their property.”
Erin Thompson is a professor of art crime at the City University of New York and said there was no question whether the artifacts were stolen or not, but getting entities like the Met to admit that was a work in progress.
“At the moment, museums are just waiting for the authorities to approach them and tell them there is a problem with this particular object,” she said. “But museums have all this information about the objects in their collection, why aren’t they the ones digging into this information?”
Thompson said that in the case of these 74 antiquities, there was a prolific smuggler at the center who was arrested by Italian authorities decades ago. After seizing his discs, they were able to determine many coins that had passed through his ring.
Advances in technology have allowed this process to become more precise and efficient, Thompson said, but public opinion was also an important factor.
“Instead of a source country having to say, ‘Oh, please, could you possibly consider giving these things back?’ Now they make justified requests much more directly,” she said. “[They are] asking, even then, ‘Hey, museum, you knew that information. You knew that these artifacts had come to you through galleries associated with this ferryman. Why didn’t you investigate to see if they had been looted?'”
In a statement to NPR, a Met spokesperson said each of these objects had “unique and complex circumstances.”
“And with everything, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has fully supported the investigations of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office,” the statement read. “The museum is a leader in the in-depth examination of individual issues, and it has returned many pieces based on extensive examination and research – often in partnership with law enforcement and outside experts.
They added that “Collection standards have changed significantly over the past few decades, and the Met’s policies and procedures in this regard have been under constant review over the past 20 years.”
Thompson said repatriation was an important part of honoring and respecting cultural heritage, and a step towards the future of museum conservation and innovation that also involved artifact owners in the process. .
“If you look at museums that have entered into negotiations with source communities, it’s not just about staying in the museum or going home and disappearing from public view,” she said. “There are some really creative, innovative and exciting partnerships that can be developed for communities that come to provide additional interpretation, that do rituals, that enrich the museum galleries even if they don’t want to take it all home.”
“So I urge museums to see this as a chance to enrich their galleries rather than seeing it all disappear.”
The audio version of this story was produced by Jonaki Mehta and edited by Christopher Intagliata.