Following dozens of high-profile art seizures by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (DA) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the past year, the New York institution has announced plans to hire four new staff dedicated to provenance research. A manager and three other employees will be tasked with examining the individual histories of works in the museum’s 1.5 million object collection.
The manager of provenance research will report to the office of Director Max Hollein, and the three additional workers will “build upon the work already underway.” The roles have yet to be posted on The Met’s job board.
“To be clear, this initiative is supplemental, as our curators, conservators, and other researchers have been deeply engaged in researching the collection for many decades,” Hollein wrote in yesterday’s announcement. “The emergence of new and additional information, along with the changing climate on cultural property, demands that we dedicate additional resources to this work.”
Hollein lays out three other initiatives to help remedy the museum’s collection issues, the first of which is to “broaden, expedite, and intensify” research into works linked to art dealers under investigation. He estimates this will encompass the examination of “several hundred or more” objects, most of which were accessioned between the 1970s and 1990s. He also states that The Met will regularly meet with advocates in the cultural property sphere and share its work through channels such as reports and public talks.
Lastly, Hollein announced that the museum formed an 18-member body of curators, conservators, and other staff members to reconsider the museum’s provenance and collection policies. The director added that last month, the board of trustees created a task force to offer counsel on collection practices.
Even if The Met can fix its collection practices going forward, events over the past year suggest the museum will have its work cut out for it as it delves into its massive trove of artifacts.
In the spring of 2022, the Manhattan DA seized five Ancient Egyptian antiquities worth a staggering $3 million. Only a few months later, The Met surrendered 21 Ancient Greek and Roman antiquities and a 6th-century Hindu statue to the office. Another case involved one of the museum’s benefactors: The DA confiscated 23 looted antiquities from the collection of Met trustee Shelby White late last year.
This March, The Met announced that it would return 15 objects to India. Recent reports have also drawn attention to the museum. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that over 1,000 objects in The Met’s collection were linked to people accused or convicted of antiquities crimes. At the end of April, ProPublica published an article stating that around 85% of the 139 Native Art objects gifted to The Met by Charles and Valerie Diker (some of which are currently on display) lacked complete provenance information.
As investigations and legal seizures have made headlines, other issues have arisen related to The Met’s relationship with the nations and people it represents through its objects. Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro was kicked out of the museum after performing a traditional Cambodian dance to a statue of the god Harihara. In an op-ed for Hyperallergic, Cheam-Shapiro discussed the importance of performing this ritual and the paradox of needing to do so at The Met instead of in Cambodia. And in an article last September, scholar Elizabeth Marlow suggested that The Met intentionally withheld information about antiquities looted from Bubon in Turkey. These works were eventually repatriated in March 2023 via the Manhattan DA’s office.