Dozens of ancient artifacts believed to be looted have been seized from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office seized 27 artifacts from the Met using three search warrants. They will be repatriated to their countries of origin, including Italy and Egypt, a spokesperson said.
The seizures coincide with growing criticism of museums’ customary practice of exhibiting works of art and artifacts that have been looted. In particular, the British Museum in London has come under pressure to return its looted artifacts, which also include the Egyptian Rosetta Stone, an Easter Island moai statue, and pieces from Nigeria, India, Jamaica, Iraq, and other countries.
The office’s overall objective of returning trafficked antiquities is comprised in part of the seizures at the Met. After discovering them circulating in the private art market, the office stated in August that a sacred artifact from the 14th century would be returned to Nepal and two books from the 17th century would be taken back to Spain.
A representative for the Met told BuzzFeed News that each of the seized items had “unique and complex circumstances,” and the museum “has been fully supportive” of the DA’s investigations.
CNN reports that cultural treasures that were illegally sold to private collectors or museums have been attempted to be returned to their original countries. Officials from New York returned 30 artifacts to Cambodia in August, including a Khmer sculpture from the 10th century.
CNN also reports three pieces of African art, including two brass plaques made in Benin around the 16th century, were repatriated to Nigeria by the Met in 2021. Following rising demand to restore the priceless objects looted during colonial times, European museums started returning stolen African art to their own countries.
Repatriation is the act of returning looted or stolen cultural artifacts to their original nations.
Dr. Senta German, an associate professor in the department of Classics and Humanities at Montclair University rsuggests the return of works of art and other cultural property is a hot topic in the news, and both sides of the argument have well-known grounds for their positions.
The main justifications for repatriation, which are most usually used by nations and peoples that want their belongings back, are that it is ethically right and that it complies with fundamental property rules for stolen or looted property for them to be returned to its rightful owner.
They also argue that cultural artifacts are an essential component of modern cultural and political identity; they belong alongside the cultures that produced them.
The most common defense against repatriation used by museums and collections that house items they don’t want to lose are that if all museums sent items back to their countries of origin, many of them would be almost empty.
Another argument is that due to poverty and/or violent conflict, the source countries do not have the necessary infrastructure or manpower to receive returned goods, therefore the items are safer where they are right now.
Dr. German says that Repatriation claims are supported by the law, but they also reflect a strong desire to make amends—a form of restorative justice—which necessitates both an admission of wrongdoing and submission. Repatriations are challenging since nations and institutions don’t often admit their mistakes.