New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds over 1,000 objects that once belonged to people who have been accused of or convicted of antiquities crimes, according to a report published today by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Of the 1,109 objects in question, 309 of them are currently on display throughout the museum, including artifacts linked to disgraced art dealers such as Subhash Kapoor and Douglas Latchford.
Spencer Woodman, one of the contributing reporters, told Hyperallergic over email that in the past year or so, The Met “has seen more seizures by law enforcement authorities than any time in its history.”
The slew of seizures raised questions for Woodman about how many objects in The Met’s collection could be attributed to people connected to illegal antiquities trade. “We thought that a basic place to start would be to ask the simple reporting question of how many pieces does The Met’s catalog link to people who have been charged or convicted of antiquities crimes,” Woodman explained. “The answer — more than a thousand — surprised us.”
The ICIJ report states that less than 50% of the 1,109 objects possess records concerning their departure from their country of origin. For example, ICIJ alleges that only three of 250 Nepali and Kashmiri objects in question have origin records, and of 94 Kashmiri relics in particular, only four have ownership records from before 1970, the year that UNESCO adopted new standards for object provenance in the interest of protecting cultural property from trafficking.
Another contributing reporter, Malia Politzer of ICIJ partner Finance Uncovered, told Hyperallergic that the report focused primarily on Nepali and Kashmiri artifacts because the related acquisition dates at The Met aligned with the years said regions were being looted amidst deadly conflicts.
“Up until 1950, Nepal was basically closed to outsiders, which means that there wasn’t much of a market for antiquities,” Politzer explained. “Then, in 1956, the country passed a law prohibiting the export of cultural property. That’s an extremely narrow acquisition window. And if you look at first provenance of most Nepali antiquities at The Met, that date is almost always after 1956 — which strongly suggests the items were looted.”
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment regarding the ICIJ’s findings, a spokesperson for The Met said, “Clearly, collecting standards have changed in recent decades — as is very apparent from a contemporary reading of the words of The Met’s director from a half century ago.”
“The field has evolved, and The Met has been a leader in this progress,” the spokesperson continued. “In addition to our commitment with all laws and professional standards, our actions are driven by three activities: research, transparency, and collaboration. This work is described at length at metmuseum.org, which also lists many of the recent returns we have made at our own initiative, including four to Nepal.”
The report highlights The Met’s previously unmonitored acquisition history as the blueprint for the museum’s current seizure and repatriation predicament. Being over a century younger than European counterparts such as the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris, The Met went on a massive buying spree in the 1960s spearheaded by former museum director Thomas Hoving. In an effort to compete with institutions across the pond, Hoving and his museum administration focused on invigorating their antiquities collection regardless of how the objects were procured, ICIJ’s report says.
ICIJ cites Hoving’s damning 1994 memoir, rife with references to illicitly smuggled objects from abroad, throughout the report. As The Met director from 1967 to 1977, Hoving wrote about approving the acquisition of a large batch of Cambodian and Indian antiquities despite his suspicion that they were smuggled into the country, and that his address book of “smugglers and fixers” and other art world acquaintances “was longer than anyone else’s in the field.”
That being said, it appears that quite a few antiquities seem to be slipping through the cracks, including this Indian-origin sandstone sculpture of a Celestial dancer (Devata) linked to disgraced antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor and his Art of the Past gallery, donated by Florence and Herbert Irving in 2015.