by Olivia Riportella '25 on September 18, 2022
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, several search warrants have recently been carried out under the pretext of looting. Authorities have ordered the museum to return dozens of objects that were illegally imported into the country from abroad, estimated to be worth around 13 million dollars. These objects serve as a reminder of the glories of ancient civilizations such as Rome, Greece, and Egypt.
According to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, these artifacts will be returned to their respective countries of origin, as they were wrongfully displaced. “We have two repatriation ceremonies next week, one with Italy and one with Egypt,” a spokesperson said. “Fifty-eight objects will go back to Italy, twenty-one from the Met. Sixteen to Egypt, six from the Met.” Braggs did not reveal where the other artifacts were seized from, but they will be returned in the Reparations Ceremony alongside those from the Met as an effort to make amends.
Some of these items have found their way to individuals that have long-standing accusations of illegally trafficking antiques, such as Gianfranco Becchina, who ran a private gallery in Switzerland for decades. Eight artifacts seized from the Met were acquired directly by Becchina himself, in addition to a total of 6,300 artifacts being confiscated from his possession in 2011. Authorities have warned that many relics are still in the hands of thieves and dealers around the world, as law enforcement has expedited its efforts against the illegal sale of ancient artifacts. However, most of the artifacts from the Met were taken from their homelands long before the underground galleries of today existed.
The ongoing investigation has already led to the repatriation of over 2,000 objects, with no intention of slowing down. The efforts to return historical artifacts to their countries of origin has been ongoing for several years now, as rising awareness of international art crime has opened many museums to intense scrutiny. “The norms of collecting have changed significantly in recent decades,” the museum said, “and The Met’s policies and procedures in this regard have been under constant review over the past 20 years.”
A terra-cotta kylix, or a drinking cup, from 470 B.C. was one of the most significant pieces among the artifacts that were seized from the Met. Valued at $1.2 million, it was purchased directly from Becchina’s illegal gallery in 1979. This item is predated by a gifted terra-cotta statuette of a Greek goddess traced back to around 400 B.C., which is valued at $400,000.
In 2021, three pieces of African art, including two brass plaques made in Benin around the 16th century, were repatriated to Nigeria. European museums were the first to begin returning irreplaceable African antiques to their countries of origin that were looted during colonial times, which influenced the Met to follow suit. Cambodia also welcomed back 30 antiques from New York officials in August, including a 10th-century Khmer sculptural “masterpiece” that had been lost. This post-colonial era of reparations will hopefully return autonomy to these nations that were destroyed by conquest and imperialism.