Three funerary stelae displayed at the Yemen Artifacts Repatriation Ceremony (all photos by Erica Knight/DHS)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art (NMAA) has begun a two-year custodial agreement with the Republic of Yemen to store 77 cultural objects the United States government repatriated to the war-torn country. The last time the US government repatriated relics to Yemen was in 2004.

Eleven early Qur’an folios, a bronze bowl, and 65 funerary stelae dated to the second half of the first millennium BCE will temporarily be housed at NMAA with the option to extend the contract if needed. On February 21, representatives from the Smithsonian Institution, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigation, the Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the Department of State, and Customs and Border Protection celebrated the partnership and the return of the looted objects with the Yemeni embassy. Sixty-four of the relics were found when Egyptian artifacts were turned over to the US Government in 2012 after antiquities dealer Mousa Khouli (Morris Khouli) pleaded guilty to smuggling in an Eastern District of New York case.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, internal conflict and civil war in Yemen have resulted in the looting and destruction of antiquities. The political climate led the embassy and the US State Department to approach NMAA to keep relics safe.

“With the current situation in Yemen, it is not the right time to bring the objects back into the country,” said ambassador Mohammed Al-Hadhrami in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. “The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is a global leader in the field of cultural heritage and preservation. We are pleased to see these objects in their care.” 

With consultation from the embassy, the Smithsonian plans to build out plans for access to and conservation of the artifacts as the collection may support ongoing research into funerary practices and the origins of words in ancient South Arabia. NMAA hopes to show a selection to the public in the ongoing exhibition Ancient Yemen: Incense, Art, and Trade. 

(Left to right) Professor Mark Vlasic, Georgetown University; Ambassador Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, Embassy of the Republic of Yemen to the USA; Steve Francis, Acting Executive Associate Director of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) at the Yemen Artifacts Repatriation Ceremony

The Smithsonian touts the partnership as an example of its ethical returns policy, which was adopted in April 2022 and followed the much-publicized repatriation of 39 Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

“We are focused on new approaches that allow visitors to deepen their understanding of Asian arts and cultures,” said Chase Robinson, director at NMAA. “Our partnership with the Republic of Yemen Government and its embassy is a powerful example of how shared stewardship of objects can build bridges and serve as a catalyst for learning and understanding, and we look forward to working with the Yemeni community to tell their stories.”

Qur’an folios now housed at NMAA

Taylor Michael is a former Hyperallergic staff reporter. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School of...