Controversies surrounding the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s antiquities collection continue to mount as a new investigation has identified more than 1,000 objects in the museum’s holdings that are connected to people who had been “either indicted or convicted of antiquities crimes”.
The report, published Monday by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in collaboration with the UK-based nonprofit Finance Uncovered, found 1,109 relics in the Met’s collection that are linked to art trafficking; 309 of which are on display. Less than half of the group have records detailing how they traveled from their country of origin to New York, including objects from countries with longstanding bans on the export of cultural heritage. Some were removed after the bans were enacted, museum records show.
The ICIJ investigation comes less than a week after the Indian Express published a list of more than 77 antiquities from South Asia in the collection of the Met that have been linked to the infamous art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who was convicted in India this year on charges of burglary and theft of antiquities. The Indian Express partnered with ICIJ and the Finance Uncovered on its report.
“The Met sets the tone for museums around the world,” Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, an organization that works to stop the trafficking of cultural heritage, told ICIJ. “If the Met is letting all of these things fall through the cracks, what hope do we have for the rest of the art market?”
In their latest investigation, ICIJ and Finance Uncovered found that hundreds of artworks in the museum’s collection do not have a provenance, which are details of the object’s legitimate export and history of ownership. Of more than 250 Nepali and Kashmiri antiquities, for example, listed in the museum’s catalog, only three can provide records detailing how they left the regions. The ICIJ noted that it focused on these two collections “because Nepal and Kashmir have experienced heavy looting that received relatively little international news coverage”.
In recent years, law enforcement, in New York and abroad, have renewed scrutiny on the provenance of ancient works in the Met’s collection, amid the rising public demand for the repatriation of looted objects. The Manhattan district attorney’s office has obtained at least nine warrants to seize antiquities from the museum since 2017; six warrants were issued in 2022 alone and covered more than 30 relics that were pillaged from Egypt, India, and across the Mediterranean.
In a statement to the ICIJ, a Met spokesperson said the museum is “committed to the responsible collecting of art and goes to great lengths to ensure that all works entering the collection meet the laws and strict policies in place at the time of acquisition.
“Additionally, as laws and guidelines on collecting have changed over time, so have the Museum’s policies and procedures. The Met also continually researches the history of works in the collection — often in collaboration with colleagues in countries around the world — and has a long track record of acting on new information as appropriate.”