Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has more than 1,000 objects in its collection that have ties to people allegedly involved in crimes related to the antiquities trade, according to a new report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), sparking heightened scrutiny of the largest and most-visited museum in the US.
At least 1,109 pieces in the Met’s collection were previously owned by individuals who have been indicted or convicted of crimes including looting and trafficking, the ICIJ and nonprofit Finance Uncovered found in a review of the Met’s antiquities collection.
Of those objects, fewer than half have records available that detail how they left their countries of origin. And of the more than 250 antiquities at the Met with links to Nepal and Kashmir — two places that have been especially badly impacted by looting — only three are listed with records that explain how the objects left the areas they originated in, according to the ICIJ and Finance Uncovered.
Many objects in the Met’s collection also have clear links to individuals who have been implicated in the looting or trafficking of antiquities, according to the ICIJ. The museum has almost two dozen pieces that once belonged to American antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht.
The Met first started to acquire objects from Hecht in the 1950s, and continued to do so even after Hecht was charged by Italian prosecutors with smuggling in 1959 and 1961. The case against Hecht was later dismissed when the statute of limitations expired, and Hecht died in 2012 after consistently denying he played any role in illegally exporting art.
The Met also has more than 800 objects that once belonged to Jonathan P. Rosen, a business partner of Hecht’s who was charged alongside Hecht in Italy in 1997. The Cleveland Museum of Art agreed to return objects in its collections from Rosen in 2008 after learning they had allegedly been stolen, and in 2013, Cornell University agreed to return around 10,000 ancient Iraqi tablets donated by Rosen, according to The Los Angeles Times. At the time, Rosen’s lawyer denied the tablets had been illegally acquired.
“The Met sets the tone for museums around the world,” Tess Davis, executive director of the anti-trafficking group Antiquities Coalition, told the ICIJ. “If the Met is letting all of these things fall through the cracks, what hope do we have for the rest of the art market?”
The Met has been the subject of multiple high-profile seizures over the past few years. Last year, at least 29 items from the Met’s collection were seized by authorities in the US, including Egyptian bronzes, Greek busts and ancient plates, helmets and statues from all over the world, according to the ICIJ.
In 2019, the museum agreed to return a 2,000-year-old gold coffin from Ancient Egypt that was thrust into the spotlight after reality television star Kim Kardashian posed alongside the artifact during the 2019 Met Gala. An investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office confirmed the coffin had been looted and that the Met had purchased the piece after a dealer showed them a “poorly forged” export license, according to the ICIJ.
“Clearly, collecting standards have changed in recent decades … the field has evolved, and The Met has been a leader in this progress,” museum spokesperson Ken Weine told The Art Newspaper, adding that The Met has made “many” recent returns at the museum’s own initiative, including four objects repatriated to Nepal.