A terra-cotta drinking cup from 490 B.C.E., a marble head of the Greek goddess Athena and painted linen fragments are among the 27 antiquities that will travel back to Italy and Egypt after investigators seized them from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, asserting that the objects were looted. Collected from the museum under three separate search warrants over the last six months, the artifacts will be returned to their countries of origin—21 to Italy; six to Egypt—in upcoming repatriation ceremonies.
These seizures come at a time of increased scrutiny from investigators looking into international art smuggling. The Manhattan district attorney’s office has obtained nine warrants to seize objects from Met since 2017, according to International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reporter Spencer Woodman and Finance Uncovered reporter Malia Politzer.
“The pace is picking up,” Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant Manhattan district attorney who leads the antiquities trafficking unit that orchestrated the Met seizures, tells the ICIJ of his office’s work. “Expect it to pick up more.”
The terra-cotta drinking cup, called a kylix, is valued at $1.2 million. The Met purchased it in 1979 from a gallery run by Italy’s Gianfranco Becchina, who began dealing antiquities in the 1970s and was first investigated by the Italian government for illegal practices in 2001. In total, eight of the objects seized from the Met were acquired directly from Becchina, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Met says the museum is a “leader in the field in comprehensively reviewing individual matters, and it has returned many pieces based upon thorough review—oftentimes in partnership with law enforcement and outside experts.”
“The norms of collecting have changed significantly,” the statement reads, “and the Met’s policies and procedures in this regard have been under constant review over the past 20 years.”
Not everyone agrees with this framing. Some experts say the Met should have allocated resources to begin the investigation and repatriation process on their own.
Speaking with New York Times reporters Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley, South Texas College of Law professor Derek Fincham says the museum should have looked into their objects more thoroughly before law enforcement stepped in. “The best institutions treat their collections as a part of the public trust and seriously research the history and acquisition of their collection,” Finchman, who specializes in cultural property, says.
“The numbers are rapidly adding up,” Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, tells the ICIJ about items authorities have seized from the Met. Her organization advocates for repatriation of cultural objects. “In what other context could you make headlines so often for holding stolen property and not face any consequences?”
One of the most notable seized Egyptian objects is “Lady With a Blue Mantle,” a portrait of a woman valued at over $1.2 million. The objects will be included in two repatriation ceremonies, one with Italy and one with Egypt, which are set to happen within the week, a spokesperson for Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg tells CNN.
The Met has been through the repatriation process before. In 2019, the museum agreed to return a looted golden-sheathed coffin from the first century B.C. to Egypt. The district attorney’s office says five of the Egyptian artifacts seized this year were obtained by the museum from the same network of looters, per the Times. In 2021, in the midst of an international wave of repatriations focused on Benin City artifacts, the Met returned two 16th-century brass plaques to Nigeria. Last month, they returned two stolen objects to Nepal. (Earlier this year, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art announced that it would return its own Benin Bronzes.)