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The Metropolitan Museum Will Return Prized Gilded Coffin After Learning It Was Stolen

How did the Met not realize its prized 2017 acquisition was a looted object? “It was the perfect storm,” explains one cultural heritage law expert who consulted on the case.

“Gilded Coffin of the Priest Nedjemankh,” Late Ptolemaic Period (150-50 BCE) cartonnage, gold, silver, resin, glass, wood (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It was announced last week that the Metropolitan Museum of Art will return a first-century BCE gilded coffin to Egypt after evidence suggested that it was looted during the Arab Spring in 2011.

When acquired in July 2017, the museum described its find as “extremely rare,” having emerged from a private collection after first being exported from Egypt in 1971. Now, prosecutors with the Manhattan district attorney’s office have upended that provenance. The New York Times reports that Met officials were fooled by forged documentation given to the museum by a Parisian art dealer named Christophe Kunicki, from whom the Met purchased its coffin for €3.5 million (~$3.95 million).

Last year, the Met opened an exhibition celebrating its acquisition from the late Ptolemaic period. Titled Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin, the show outlined how the polytheistic ancient Egyptian religion survived three centuries of foreign rule before fusing its formal traditions with the aesthetics of Coptic Christianity. (The coffin’s owner, Nedjemankh, was a high-ranking priest of the ram-headed god Heryshef of Herakleopolis.) The exhibition was prematurely shuttered ahead of its April end date because of the coffin’s status as a stolen object.

Installation view of Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin (image by author)

This is not the first time that the Met has relinquished something originally hailed as an acquisition of a lifetime. In 2008, the Upper East Side institution returned the 2,500-year-old Euphronios krater to the Italian government after a three-decade struggle over its provenance information. Last year, the museum also returned an eighth-century stone sculpture of a Hindu goddess and third-century limestone sculpture to India.

“Our museum must be a leader among our peers in the respect for cultural property and in the rigor and transparency of the policy and practices that we follow,” Met director Max Hollein said in a written statement. “We will learn from this event — specifically I will be leading a review of our acquisitions program — to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future.”

In a separate statement, Met president and chief executive Daniel Weiss also apologized to Dr. Khaled El-Enany, Egypt’s minister of antiquities, saying that the museum was committed to figuring out “how we can help to deter future offenses against cultural property.”

However, experts say that the industry already has clear guidelines in place for the sale of antiquities. “In general, anyone purchasing antiquities should be completing due diligence prior to purchase,” explains Leila Amineddoleh, a cultural heritage lawyer who consulted with the Manhattan DA’s office on the Nedjemankh coffin case. “The Met should have confirmed the veracity of its paperwork. You cannot just rely on what a dealer has said. Forged papers have been going on forever.”

“It’s common knowledge that Egypt has been heavily looted within the past decade,” she added during a phone call with Hyperallergic. “The red flags were there and I think those definitely would have justified digging deeper.”

Egypt is a country with a particularly active ministry of culture that engages private and public collectors of antiquity on questions of provenance. And because the country has patrimony laws dating as far back as the 19th century, it’s virtually impossible to legally export ancient objects unearthed in the 1970s from Egypt without the government’s stamp of approval.

“Contact the authorities before you spend almost $4 million on an object,” admonishes Amineddoleh. “It’s the responsibility of the museum to trace provenance.”

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