On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art said in an internal letter that it was implementing measures to review artifacts as authorities and scholars continue to raise concerns over provenance issues related to artworks in its holdings.
As part of the plan, which was first reported by the New York Times, the museum said it would appoint a team of researchers to look into artifacts with gaps in ownership records. According to the Times, the museum said that several hundred objects will be reviewed as part of the initiative.
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The Met has been the subject of multiple seizures by Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which has a dedicated unit focused on seizures of cultural property believed to have been looted. The unit, which was formed in 2017, has been active in returning scores of antiquities from the New York institution to countries like Turkey, Egypt, Italy, and Greece.
The unit has in recent years targeted prominent New York philanthropists, among them being Shelby White and Michael Steinhardt, both of whom are collectors that have donated artworks to the Met. White is currently a Met trustee. White and Steinhardt were both active in the antiquities trade between the 1980s and 1990s, an era when standards for provenances were much laxer than they are now, according to many academics and lawyers.
Foreign officials have also called on the museum to re-examine its collection for works with ties to suspect dealers and sites vulnerable to looting. Cambodian officials have been in talks with the Met and US investigators over the last year in an effort to reclaim legal title of ancient artifacts from the museum’s collection. The country’s officials raised flags around objects donated to the Met by a disgraced British antiquities dealer are looted in 2022.
A recent investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in collaboration with the UK-based nonprofit Finance Uncovered found more than 1,000 relics in the Met’s collection with links to traffickers. The report said 309 of the objects reviewed as part of the investigation were on display. Another report, led by ProPublica, raised questions about the museum’s handling of objects linked to Native American tribes donated by New York manufacturer Charles Diker and his wife Valerie.
In a statement addressed to staff that has since been published on the museum’s website, director Max Hollein said, “We will broaden, expedite, and intensify our research into all works that came to the museum from art dealers who have been under investigation.”
Hollein added that artifacts under review were acquired mainly acquired over the course of two decades between 1970 and 1990, when the legal standards around acquiring antiquities and reviewing provenance were generally laxer. “There was less information available and less scrutiny on the provenance of many of these works,” he said, adding, “The emergence of new and additional information, along with the changing climate on cultural property, demands that we dedicate additional resources to this work.”