New York’s Campaign of Restitution: Seized Antiquities Returned to 19 Countries

published on Friday, June 02, 2023 at 8:04 p.m.

World hub of arts and finance, New York lifts the veil on its international traffic in antiquities, hundreds of works looted in recent decades in Asia, Europe and the Middle East and seized by the courts from collectors and in prestigious museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The scale of antiquities seizures and repossessions involving museums, art galleries, auction houses, private collections in New York City and originating from more than 12 countries is beyond doubt: New York is one of the hubs of illicit antiquities (traffic) on the planet,” says Christos Tsirogiannis, archaeologist and art historian at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

This researcher and his colleague David Gill, a professor at the British Kent Law School, shared with AFP a tiny part of their investigations into international networks trafficking in ancient works of art. Their work makes them experts with the justice of New York.

Because in the cultural and economic capital of the United States, kingdom of grandiose museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) and the extremely wealthy auction companies Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the Manhattan prosecutor’s office has been leading a campaign of restitution since 2017. Works of Art: Pieces from Greek, Roman, Byzantine Antiquity or Mesopotamia, China, India and Southeast Asia looted from around 20 countries between the 1970s and 1990s.

– A thousand works returned –

And the pace has been accelerating for two years.

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Under the aegis of prosecutor Alvin Bragg, in office since 2022, more than 950 coins worth $165 million have been returned to 19 countries, including Cambodia, China, India, Pakistan, India. Egypt, Iraq, Greece, Turkey or Italy.

In a May 9 ceremony at the Chinese Consulate General in New York, Mr. Bragg returned two 7th-century stone burial sculptures valued at $3.5 million to Beijing.

These works had been “sawn off” on graves in the 1990s, exported and sold illegally, then “lent to the Met, from 1998 to 2023, by Shelby White, a collector from Manhattan”, revealed the New York prosecutor’s office, strong of a special unit of police and magistrates.

Shelby White, 85, is a billionaire philanthropist, administrator and donor to the Met, from whom many stolen works of art were seized in June 2021 and April 2022.

While “thanking her for her cooperation”, magistrate Bragg announced at the beginning of May that he had “completed this year a criminal investigation into antiquities acquired by Mrs. White, concluded by the seizure of 89 works from ten countries with a total value of 69 millions of dollars”.

– “Nothing to declare” –

AFP did not manage to get in touch with this discreet businesswoman who had contented herself with saying at the end of 2022 to the newspaper Art Newspaper that she had “really nothing to declare”.

But for Messrs. Tsirogiannis and Gill, her acquisitions, along with her husband Leon Levy (died 2003), were “ill-advised”, especially those amassed after the 1970 UNESCO Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property.

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In fact, points out Mr. Tsirogiannis, “until 2008, Mrs. White had returned ten works to Italy and two to Greece; she should therefore have had serious doubts about the origin and status of the rest (of her collection) and verify them years before the last seizures” of 2021 and 2022.

Mr. Gill also cites Shelby White’s only known public statement, in 2007, that when “you buy an object at auction at Sotheby’s, Christie’s or at an art dealer on Madison Avenue, you don’t think you’re doing anything wrong. Buying antiques is legal.”

– Looting in Iraq –

Last restitution to date, on May 19, the New York justice returned to Iraq a limestone elephant from the Mesopotamian period and an alabaster buffalo from the Sumerian civilization “stolen during the (first) Gulf War and passed into smuggling in New York in the late 1990s”.

The buffalo was “seized from the private collection of Shelby White”, denounced Mr. Bragg, pledging that “New York will not become a sanctuary for stolen ancient cultural objects”.

Other art dealers were confounded by justice.

Collector Michael Steinhardt, who had a gallery named after him at the Met, was ordered to return 180 antiques worth $70 million, under a court settlement out of court in 2021. Manhattan, the Indian and American Subhash Kapoor, was sentenced in November to ten years in prison in India, the culmination of a decade of international investigation.

In September, Mr. Bragg also returned to Egypt 16 pieces, including five seized at the Met, part of a double investigation in New York and Paris where the former president of the Louvre Jean-Luc Martinez is indicted.

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Without commenting on the Martinez case – suspected of having ignored warnings about possible false certificates of origin of these works, which he disputes – the president of the Louvre Laurence des Cars replied to AFP, during a mid-May visit to New York, that “the major museums should know the stories of their collections” and that “the story of the Met’s collections was not that of the Louvre”.

Under pressure, the director of the Met, Max Hollein, has just announced the creation of a commission of researchers to “examine” the “provenance” of certain pieces from the extraordinary collection of his museum (1.5 million works ) in order, in the event of theft and looting, to “return” them to the countries of origin.

2023-05-30 07:00:00
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