Republic of Yemen and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Come to Agreement Over Artifacts

The two pieces, which date back to the third millennium B.C.E., will remain in New York for now

Mortar plate
This marble mortar was originally found in the ancient city of Ma'rib in 1984. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The government of Yemen and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art have announced a custodial deal over two looted Yemeni artifacts in the museum’s collection. The Met will retain custody over the objects at the request of Yemeni officials, but officially Yemen has regained ownership of the pieces. 

Director and CEO of the Met, Max Hollein, says in a statement that the museum is “honored” to return the property to Yemen while maintaining custodial status.

“These compelling objects offer an important opportunity to present Yemeni culture—in dialogue with our collection of 5,000 years of art history—to the Met’s audiences,” Hollein says. 

According to the statement, the two artifacts were found near the ancient city of Ma’rib in 1984 and date back to the third millennium B.C.E. The museum purchased the statue in 1998, receiving the mortar as a gift the following year. Zachary Small of the New York Times reports that both pieces came from a French collector named Jean-Luc Chalmin.

Female statue
This female statue is one of two artifacts returned to Yemeni ownership by the Met last week. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The earliest historical records in Yemen reference the Sabaean civilization, better known from Biblical literature as Sheba. The Sabaeans rose to power in southern Arabia sometime during the early first millennium B.C.E. Ma’rib was their capital city. These artifacts appear to predate any written records of Sabaean civilization. 

Archaeologist Lamya Khalidi, a researcher who spent eight years in conservation and preservation in Yemen, tells the Times that the custodial agreement gives her “hope” for the artifacts’ futures.

“It is a difficult time to send back artifacts because the museums are still trying to evaluate what the extent of the damage has been after so many years of bombardment,” Khalidi says. 

The agreement comes just months after the Met announced a push to hire more provenance researchers. In early May, the museum acknowledged the need to “more thoroughly” investigate the origins of its artworks, after several high-profile investigations into cases of looting. One such investigation by ProPublica found that only 15 percent of the Native American work donated or loaned to the museum by the noted art collectors Charles and Valerie Diker had “solid or complete ownership histories.”

Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage and a Tlingit citizen, tells Kathleen Sharp of ProPublica that the Met’s increased attention towards provenance is “a step in the right direction.”

“It’s good news, assuming that the Met will consult with the tribes,” Worl says of those artifacts. “There is a wealth of information that can be had.”

This agreement also resembles those made between the Yemini government and other museums in recent months: the Smithsonian Institution agreed to look after 77 looted Yemeni artifacts in February, and just a few weeks ago, England’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) took custody of four ancient funerary stones from the first millennium B.C.E.

“Arts and culture can play an important role in rebuilding a society from conflict and this agreement is a fantastic way to ensure Yemeni culture remains in Yemeni care,” Charles Harper, the UK’s deputy ambassador to Yemen, says of the V&A agreement, per Harriet Sherwood of the Guardian.

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