The Metropolitan Museum of Art, facing increasing scrutiny from law enforcement officials, academics and the news media over the extent to which its collection includes looted artifacts, announced on Tuesday a major new effort to review its holdings and policies with a view toward returning items it finds to have problematic histories.
The core feature of the new plan is the museum’s decision to hire a provenance research team that is as robust as any in place at an American museum.
The moves come as the Met — one of the largest museums in the world, with more than 1.5 million works from the past 5,000 years in its holdings — has been buffeted in recent years by increasing calls to repatriate works that law enforcement officials and foreign governments say it has no right to.
In the past year, Cambodian officials have sought the help of federal officials to secure the return of artifacts they view as looted. Separately, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has seized dozens of antiquities from the museum to return them to countries like Turkey, Egypt and Italy.
The museum’s stature and the scope of its effort, disclosed in a letter to the museum staff, is likely to affect how other institutions grapple with the increasing pressure to return ancient items that bear evidence of having been looted.
“As a pre-eminent voice in the global art community, it is incumbent upon the Met to engage more intensively and proactively in examining certain areas of our collection,” Max Hollein, the museum’s director, said in his letter. He added that “the emergence of new and additional information, along with the changing climate on cultural property, demands that we dedicate additional resources to this work.”
To better confront these issues, Hollein said, the Met has developed initiatives to “broaden, expedite and intensify research into all works that came to the museum from art dealers who have been under investigation.”
Most significantly, the Met will bring in a manager of provenance research and three additional provenance researchers to build upon the efforts of its curators and conservators.
Other museums, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, have had a dedicated provenance researcher for years, often assisted by an aide. But the Met’s new four-person unit is thought to be as large as any deployed by a U.S. fine arts institution.
In addition, Hollein said in his letter, the Met plans to “convene thought leaders, advocates and opinion makers in the area of cultural property,” and to share more of its work in this area. The letter referred to a panel conversation on a previous agreement the museum had made with the Nigerian Cultural Ministry about returning and loaning artworks.
Finally, the Met has formed a committee of 18 curators, conservators and others to consider its legal and public policies and practices when it comes to collecting.
Hollein said most of the objects with provenance questions at the Met had been acquired between 1970 and 1990, which his letter described as a period of rapid growth for the museum, when there was less information available and less scrutiny on provenance. “We currently estimate that this examination will include several hundred or more objects,” his letter said.
The period after 1970 has been an important focus because it heralded an era when many countries adopted the principles of a UNESCO treaty that sought to crack down on illicit trade in antiquities. Museums began to set guidelines in response, and many agreed not to acquire artifacts without clear, documented evidence that they had left a country of origin before 1970, or had been legally exported after 1970.
But the follow-through by the Met and other museums has been imperfect, and in a good number of cases the Met, based on the records it kept, accepted artifacts with no history beyond the name of the dealer or the donor who supplied it. Thomas Hoving, a Met curator who later became its director, acknowledged after leaving the museum that, in the quest to acquire trophy artifacts, the pursuit occasionally trumped all other concerns.
“The attitude used to be, don’t acquire something you know to be stolen — that’s a very low standard,” said Maxwell Anderson, who has served as the director of institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Dallas Museum of Art. “The attitude today is, don’t acquire something unless you know it’s not stolen. It’s a 180-degree difference.”
Although rules were more strictly observed in later years, museum curators at times took a dealer’s word that objects had been obtained legally. Or museums found it difficult to confirm an artwork’s origins when, as in the case of Cambodia in the 1970s, foreign countries were in turmoil and there was no government to check with.
Cambodian officials have said in recent years that at least 45 artifacts at the Met were stolen from ancient sites in the country. The Met has recently removed several items from display in response, but it has refused to show Cambodian officials internal documents that might buttress, or undermine, the museum’s proper title to the objects. Instead, the Met has requested evidence from Cambodia demonstrating that the works were stolen.
The Met’s new approach comes as leading museums around the world are confronting similar challenges. The British Museum has been in talks with Greek officials, who have long sought the return of the Parthenon marbles. The Vatican announced last year that it would give fragments of the Parthenon that were long held in the Vatican Museum to the Greek Orthodox Church. German and U.S. museums have been returning Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
Some critics want museums to do far more than simply ensure that ancient objects were not stolen. Even when no laws were broken, they want museums to place a greater emphasis on social justice, ensuring that objects were not obtained by exploiting societies weakened by poverty, colonialism, war or political instability — and to return them if they were.
“It’s time to step up, gentlemen,” Elizabeth Marlowe, director of the museum studies program at Colgate University, said in an interview last year about the appropriate responses by institutions. “It’s a different landscape.”
Over the years the Met has returned many objects that were found to have been looted or were of questionable provenance. In 2008, for example, it returned to Italy the famous Euphronios krater, purchased in 1972 for $1 million.
But the pace has quickened. In the past year, the Met said it had returned 45 items to a variety of countries. It said it had been, and would continue to be, entirely cooperative, despite criticism that it had not acted quickly enough to address the problem.
As far back as 2015, some 15 items in the Met’s collection were identified as having come from Subhash Kapoor, a Manhattan art dealer accused of being one of the world’s most prolific smugglers of stolen artifacts. In 2019, the Met committed to reviewing the items, but it did not announce it would return them until two months ago.
Hollein emphasized in his letter that, even with the additional resources, the process of provenance research needed to be deliberative and potentially slow.
“Despite the urgency the media environment may suggest, we must be diligent, thoughtful and fair in our evaluation of any evidence being presented to us,” he said in his letter. “We are committed to getting it right, and equally committed to taking the time necessary to do so.”
The new plan would also seem to better equip the Met to offer counterarguments when it is presented with a subpoena or seizure order from the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
Matthew Bogdanos, the prosecutor who leads the unit, has seized objects, under stolen property laws, from many private collectors and other museums such as the J. Paul Getty Museum, which last year returned to Italy a major piece, “Orpheus and the Sirens,” life-size terra-cotta figures dating to 300 B.C.
But in the past year the Met’s collection has been a particular focus. In September, the office said it had seized 27 ancient artifacts valued at more than $13 million from the Met, asserting that the objects had all been looted. They include an ancient Greek kylix, or drinking cup, and were returned to Egypt and Italy.
In March, investigators said they had seized a headless bronze statue of the ancient Roman emperor Septimius Severus, dating to 225 A.D. and valued at $25 million. It had presided over the Greek and Roman galleries for a dozen years.
Hollein said in an interview that the expansion of provenance research was in no way motivated by a sense that the museum was being outgunned when it came to understanding the history of its own collection. He said that he viewed the Met as working in concert with law enforcement and that he welcomed the district attorney’s findings as “extraordinarily powerful and revelatory.”
“We’re in constant dialogue and sometimes we’re being confronted with evidence we haven’t seen before, which makes us move,” Hollein said. “There is a partnership. I don’t see our efforts as opposed to the district attorney or that we need to step up because they stepped up.”
In his letter, Hollein attempted to describe what he saw as the changing cultural mores that museums now face. “We live in a time,” he wrote, ”when the idea of a cosmopolitan, global society is being challenged, and some more nationalist voices embrace cultural artifacts less as ambassadors of a people but more as evidence of national identity.”
He does worry as well, he said in the interview, that people have lost sight of the critical mission being performed by museums.
“It’s not that we are taking objects and closing them away just because we want to own them,” he said. “We collect objects because we want to share them, we want to contextualize them, we want people to understand more about them. The Met is a very good place for works of art from across the world. It’s a very good place to connect these objects with other communities and cultures.”
Still, Hollein acknowledged that he expected the researchers to turn up additional items that needed to be returned.
“The results will be manifold and you will see more restitutions by the Met with clear findings and clear articulations,” he said.
“Whatever unlawfully entered our collection,” he added, “should not be in our collection.”
Tom Mashberg contributed reporting.