Following a string of high-profile restitutions of looted artifacts from New York City museums, dealers, and collectors, the District Attorney for Manhattan, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., has formed a dedicated Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU). Announced last week, just as three ancient marble sculptures (including one that was seized from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) were returned to Lebanon, the new unit formalizes the interagency partnerships and investigative processes that the District Attorney’s office has used to recover artifacts in the past.
“Since 2012, my Office has recovered several thousand trafficked antiquities collectively valued at more than $150 million, including the beautiful stolen statues being returned to the Lebanese Republic today,” Vance said in a statement. “When you put a price tag on these artifacts, however, it is all too easy to forget that these are not just valuable collector’s items — these are rare, celebrated remnants of entire civilizations’ culture and history.”
The new unit will be led by assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, a former Marine who spearheaded the US Army’s efforts to recover artifacts looted from the National Museum of Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. He will work with investigators from other agencies, analysts, paralegals, and agents of foreign governments to pursue tips about potentially problematic provenance.
Most existing units dedicated to tracking and policing the trade in ill-gotten artifacts operate at national rather than municipal levels, like the FBI’s Art Crime Team and the Carabinieri’s Tutela Patrimonio Culturale in Italy, making Manhattan’s new ATU something of an anomaly. However, given that Manhattan is home to an incredibly large share of the world’s sellers and buyers of antiquities, Bogdanos and his team will undoubtedly have plenty of work to keep them busy.