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The Metropolitan Museum of Art got into a scandal and may lose part of the collection: many exhibits turned out to be stolen or of dubious origin


Nadezhda Verbitskaya

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In Bungmati village, Nepal, two stone shrines and a temple stand above an ancient spring. To the side of one of these shrines is a large opening where a statue of the Hindu patron god Sridhara Vishnu used to stand. The Guardian.

Carved by craftsmen almost a thousand years ago, the sandstone relic was revered by the locals. Sometime in the early 1980s, this tradition was suddenly interrupted when thieves stole the statue. Bungmati resident Buddha Ratna Tuladhar recalls how the community was "overwhelmed with melancholy" over her loss. “We kept hoping that the statue would be restored. But that never happened,” he says.

About ten years after the theft, on the other side of the world, a wealthy American collector donated the statue to the famous New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. She remained there for almost 30 years until, in 2021, an anonymous Facebook account called “The Lost Art of Nepal” finally discovered her. Although the Metropolitan Museum of Art has since removed the statue from its public collection, signaling that it may soon be returned, the damage to the Bungmati community has already been done.

“There is a living religion in Nepal where these idols are actively worshiped in temples. People pray to them and carry them out during festivals for ceremonies,” says Roshan Mishra, a volunteer with the Nepal Heritage Restoration Campaign. “When the relics are stolen, these festivals stop. Every stolen statue undermines our culture. Our traditions fade and are eventually forgotten.”

In the antiquities trade, the reputation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art also began to undermine.

Over the past two years, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its news media partners have reported on the museum's acquisition of antiquities. Often in connection with a collection of items sourced from Cambodia during an era when that country's cultural heritage was sold in bulk to the highest bidder. A broader study of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's antiquities collection by ICIJ, Finance Uncovered, L'Espresso and other media partners in recent months has raised new concerns about the origins of the museum's collection of ancient statues, friezes and other relics.

On the subject: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has again changed the signatures for Aivazovsky's works: now the artist has been recognized as an Armenian

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in 1880, much later than its counterparts in Paris and London. The museum began its work with the purchase of 174 paintings. This did not at all correspond to the scale of the palace galleries of the French Louvre, which already contained thousands of works, many of which were inherited from the colonial exploits of the nation.

Even in the 1960s, North America's largest museum was still playing catch up.

The management of the Metropolitan Museum aggressively pursued major acquisitions. And treated the smuggling of antiquities as the main way to find sources, and sometimes even accepted it.

Under the direction of its then director, Thomas Hoving, the Met began active buying in an attempt to build a collection of antiquities that could match those of competitors in London and Paris. In the following decades, the museum filled its halls and warehouses with treasures from Greece, Italy, Egypt, India, Cambodia and other countries. “Each decade of any civilization that has taken root on earth is represented by some worthy exhibit,” Hoving later wrote about the results of his work. “The Met has everything.”

Today, governments, law enforcement, and researchers are linking a growing number of Metropolitan Museum of Art relics to looters and merchants. While the Met voluntarily returned some exhibits, prosecutors confiscated others.

Reporters examined the museum's catalog and found 1 items, of which less than half have records describing how they left their country of origin, formerly owned by people charged or convicted of crimes against antiquities or their galleries. And 109 of them are currently on public display.

ICIJ and Finance Uncovered have found that hundreds of antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection have no record of country of origin.

For example, a deep examination of the museum's catalog of more than 250 Nepalese and Kashmiri antiquities reveals that only three of them have provenance records explaining how they left these regions. The ICIJ focused on these collections as large robberies were taking place in both regions with little news coverage.

Investigators' interest in items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection, as well as increased media coverage, have led antiquities trade experts to wonder how much more items from the museum's catalog could be repatriated. And what does this mean for the art world as a whole.

In response to reporters' questions, the Met defended its collecting practices. “The Met is committed to responsible art collecting. And makes every effort to ensure that all works entering the collection comply with the laws and strict rules in force at the time of purchase,” said Kenneth Vine, spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. – In addition, over time, the laws and rules of collecting have changed. And the policies and procedures of the museum have also changed.” The Met is also constantly researching the history of the pieces in the collection – often in collaboration with colleagues around the world – and has a long track record of taking appropriate action on new information.”

What the Met decides to do about these issues will have implications beyond the museum itself. But also perhaps for what the public can expect from museums around the world.

“The Met sets the tone for museums around the world,” says Tess Davis, executive director of the Coalition of Antiquities. This organization campaigns against the illegal circulation of cultural artifacts. “If the Met is letting all these things fall through the ground, then what hope do we have for the rest of the art market?” she says.

We all believe that these things were dug up illegally.

Hoving, who served as director of the museum from 1967 to 1977, is credited with turning the Metropolitan Museum of Art into a world-class museum that houses major works. In his 1994 memoir, he describes how, during his decade of active acquisition of works for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he used many illegal sources. He wrote that his notebook of "smugglers and brokers" and other acquaintances in the art world "was longer than anyone else in the field." Being an accomplice to smugglers, he wrote, was a necessary role for the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He approved the purchase of a large consignment of Indian and Cambodian antiquities. And this despite the fact that he suspected that they were smuggled in. He concealed diary entries detailing his doubts about the provenance of the stolen Greek pottery. When the Turkish authorities demanded that the Metropolitan Museum of Art return the stolen relics, he surprisingly admitted his guilt to a fellow curator.

“We all think these things were dug up illegally,” Hoving recalls. - For God's sake, if the Turks present evidence on their part, we will return the Eastern Greek treasures. And this is politics. We took a risk when we bought the material.”

The Met had dealt with accused antiquities dealers before Hoving came along.

In the 1950s, the Met began acquiring exhibits from Robert E. Hecht. An American-born antiquities dealer has been prosecuted by the authorities for decades. And in the end he was brought to trial on charges of smuggling antiquities in Italy. In 1959 and 1961 Italian prosecutors accused Hecht of smuggling antiquities. And in 1973, a warrant was issued for his arrest, which was later withdrawn. But the Met kept buying from him anyway. The Italian case against Hecht, who died in 2012 at the age of 92, was eventually dropped due to the statute of limitations. Hecht denied any involvement in the illegal export of works of art.

Bruce McNall, Hecht's former business partner who helped him sell exhibits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told ICIJ that the museum didn't ask much about how the exhibits were acquired. “I don't think Bob [Hecht] would reveal where he got things too often,” McNall said. – Did I know that things come from illegal sites? No, but I suspected it. But we never delved into this topic.”

McNall said he sold one Greek vase to the Met, although he knew nothing about how Hecht acquired it. McNall also said that, in his recollection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's respected curator of classics, Dietrich von Bothmer, "didn't ask me about any details of its origin or where it was found."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art still holds about two dozen items that once belonged to Hecht, including seven Greek vases.

None of the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits associated with Hecht indicate the origin or history of ownership that could explain how they left their homeland.

McNall said he avoided the underworld, which supplied his business partner with relics. “This is a mafia-run business. And that's where you have to be careful,” McNall said of Hecht's dealings in Italy and Turkey. "They're tough guys, so I always said, 'Let Bob deal with it.' I don't want to deal with this crap. I'm not going to go there and deal with those guys."

Museum records of Hecht's most notable Met sale, a $1 million Greek vase, show the museum's commitment to acquiring unique relics. “The vase, if purchased, will not only elevate the status of the Greek and Roman collections, but will be considered one of the greatest objects in the museum,” reads the minutes of the Metropolitan Museum’s Acquisition Committee meeting on the purchase. The minutes of the committee's deliberations make no mention of the origin of the vase, other than that Hecht was the seller. Hoving later became an advocate for the repatriation of stolen relics. And also joined the campaign to put pressure on the Metropolitan Museum of Art to repatriate the vase. In 2008, after a lengthy criminal investigation into the origin of the item, the museum returned the vase to Italy, where it was originally unearthed.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has more than 800 items in its collection—the largest, according to ICIJ analysis—that were once owned by Jonathan P. Rosen, another close business associate of Hecht. The museum received them both before and after Rosen was indicted along with Hecht in the 1997 case of illegal antiquities trafficking in Italy.

A bank official and avid collector, Rosen co-owned a New York gallery with Hecht. In the mid-2000s, Rosen's name came up in connection with the gallery. Then Italian prosecutors claimed that she was selling stolen Italian treasures. In 2008, the Cleveland Museum of Art returned allegedly stolen relics it received from Rosen. In 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that Cornell University had agreed to return 10 ancient tablets donated by Rosen and his family to Iraq. Scholars believed that these items were taken from Iraq after the Gulf War in 000. Rosen's lawyer told the newspaper that the tablets "were legally acquired."

The charge brought against Rosen in Italy featured in a sprawling criminal case against Giacomo de' Medici, a notorious antiquities smuggler convicted in Italy in 2004.

The Italian verdict against the Medici states that Rosen helped sell a stolen ancient tripod to the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Guglielmo Muntoni, the judge in Rome who handled the Medici case, said Rosen was never brought to trial because the statute of limitations had expired. And because an important exhibit associated with Rosen was returned from the US to Italy. Rosen's spokesperson told ICIJ that Rosen was unable to comment due to ill health.

The collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art also contains 85 works that once belonged to Subhash Kapoor or his gallery.

The US Department of Homeland Security called Kapoor "one of the most prosperous goods smugglers in the world." He was arrested in Germany in 2011 and convicted in India this year for illegally trading in antiquities worth more than $100 million.

One famous antiquity from modern India, the Sky Dancer, was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a deal involving Art of the Past, Kapoor Gallery in Manhattan. In 2013, two years after Kapoor's arrest, a gallery manager pleaded guilty to selling stolen Asian art. However, in 2015, while Kapoor was awaiting trial on charges of smuggling in India, the Met accepted the painting as a gift from wealthy collectors who bought it from his gallery.

In the Metropolitan Museum of Art's publicly available documents on the origins of Sky Dancer, there is no hint of how the work left India. A 2016 archival version of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website states that the piece "decorated a North Indian Hindu temple" in present-day Uttar Pradesh. This wording is no longer found on the museum's website.

In response to questions from ICIJ, the Met did not provide any information on how the museum knew where the piece came from. And he did not provide any information about how, in his opinion, the work left the country.

You don't know what goes on behind closed doors.

Hoving wrote that at the end of his tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he attempted to change the museum's practices. In the early 1970s, he attended a UNESCO hearing on the issue of looted antiquities. Then I felt that "the era of piracy is over." And "decided to change the Met's freestyle collecting methods."

But there is no evidence that the Met tightened its acquisition standards in later years. The number of exhibits that can be charged with looting has only grown. The museum's sloppy approach to acquisition has led much of its catalog to be questioned today. Martin Lerner, a former museum curator for East Asian art, said last year that he relied on the “goodwill and integrity” of dealers like his friend Douglas Latchford, who was charged in late 2019 with dealing in antiquities.

During 2022, US authorities removed at least 29 items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection.

Among them are Greek busts, Egyptian bronzes, as well as ancient plates, helmets and statues made of gold, bronze and terracotta, taken from all over the Mediterranean and India. The investigators responsible for the seizure are part of an anti-trafficking unit led by Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

Bogdanos says his office is not investigating the Metropolitan Museum of Art specifically. But the outstanding exhibits of his collection fell into investigations aimed mainly at individual merchants. Within five years of operation, his unit began to build a more complete picture of international criminal groups. And Bogdanos says he expects the pace of action for his agency to pick up.

“The Met was built to compete with the world's biggest museums,” says Erin Thompson, professor of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He wants to have everything. Putting these conditions together is pretty dangerous in terms of making ethical decisions.”

But the Met is not alone in its struggle.

Museums around the world are faced with the challenge of deciding how to deal with looted items in their collections. Last year, the Horniman Museum in London, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and various German museums and private collectors repatriated items looted in Nigeria. And in the first two months of this year alone, museums and private collectors from the United States, Spain and Australia repatriated dozens of looted relics to their countries of origin. Central to this issue are the problems inherent in the antiquities market itself, where transactions worth millions of dollars can be carried out without the due diligence of museums or auction houses.

“The antiquities market has been called the largest unregulated market in the world,” says Angela Chiu, an independent researcher and expert on Asian art and the antiquities market. "It's self-regulating and you don't know what's going on behind closed doors."

This difficulty in confirming an item's origin story has led some in the art world to rethink the question of whether museums should even buy antiquities at all. The National Gallery of Australia has returned more than a dozen sculptures purchased through Subhash Kapoor for more than $8,7 million. Upon learning that they had been stolen, the museum management decided to completely stop participating in the antiquities market.

“It's very, very rare for items to have the level of provenance we need for ethical acquisition,” says Bronwyn Campbell, senior curator of provenance at the National Gallery.

We will return these relics.

More than 40 years later, the people of Bungmati, Nepal, still go without their statue of Sridhara Vishnu. But with the help of Lost Arts of Nepal, coalition volunteers have tracked three more relics they say were stolen from Nepalese temples to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection. And they support this statement with archival footage showing matches with temple relics.

Site visits and interviews with local residents confirmed two of the three matches. They include a smooth, hand-painted wooden statue of Nrityadevi, known as the goddess of dance, and an elaborately carved wooden temple bracket, allegedly stolen from a World Heritage Site temple in Bhaktapur. Nrityadevi was stolen from the I Baha Bahi Temple, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the Kathmandu valley. This is the opinion of the members of the Nepal Heritage Restoration Campaign.

Guarded by two black stone lions, the two-story brick, wood and mud building once housed numerous statues of gods and goddesses. For many years, during the holy month of August, the relics were taken out and put on public display. Religious believers from all over the world gathered for the feast of Bahidyo Bvoyego, during which they sang hymns, recited prayers and worshiped idols. In 1970 the temple was raided and the gods and goddesses of the community were stolen.

By cross-matching photographs taken in 1969, Lost Arts of Nepal was able to match the lost Nrityadevi with an exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection. She also claims to have successfully tracked down several other lost temple relics in the collections of other American museums. Members of the Nepal Heritage Restoration Campaign have asked the government to help them contact museums and return these relics.

“I understand the concept of conservation. But taking an object from a living culture and putting it behind glass in a museum and then saying, “We are saving this object for this country” is completely wrong,” said Roshan Mishra of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign.

Because Nepal was closed to foreigners until the 1950s and has a long-standing ban on the export of culturally significant material dating back to 1956, the vast majority of objects acquired by museums outside the country after that year are likely stolen. So says Emilyn Smith, Lecturer in Crime in the Arts and Criminology at the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Studies at the University of Glasgow.

“The Met shouldn't have dealt with [Nepalese] items at all,” says Smith. “Even if you have an item whose origin dates back to 1970, it could not be traded after 1956.”

Wayne, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said the museum is “currently in direct discussions with Nepal regarding selected items from the museum's collection. And we look forward to a constructive solution and a constant and open dialogue.” He did not specify exactly what items are being discussed and whether the museum plans to return them.

“We believe we will return these relics,” Mishra said. "But we don't know when."

In the absence of a more comprehensive repatriation policy, much of Nepal's lost cultural heritage will remain behind glass in Western museums, far from home.

“If you want to preserve cultural heritage, you need to return these items to the community,” Mishra says. “You need to get them out of the museum space. And return to their original temples, where a living culture is active, where the item can be worshiped, and where it fits the purpose for which it was made.”

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