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Antiquities Coalition: Metropolitan Museum of Art Should Convene Task Force Against Cultural Racketeering

June 13, 2022

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York needs to take strong, concrete, and immediate action following reports linking it to an organized trafficking network that smuggled millions of dollars worth of artifacts from areas of unrest in the Middle East.

On June 1, the Art Newspaper broke the story that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg had seized 5 Egyptian treasures worth over $3 million from the Met, alleging they were evidence of the criminal possession of stolen property and conspiracy. The seizure was part of a police probe, now spanning several countries, that first made headlines in 2019. That year, the Manhattan DA’s Office had conducted another major seizure at the museum—of a 2,100 year-old gold coffin worth $4 million, which had been looted from Egypt during the chaos of the Revolution, and then laundered into its collection on forged papers.

These two seizures, of six masterpieces worth $7 million, are just the latest ethical and legal challenge to face the Met, but they may not be the last. The museum is also reviewing at least an additional 45 antiquities that may be stolen property.

The Met is not the only cultural institution caught in the dragnet that led to the Egyptian seizures. In France, Jean-Luc Martinez, a scholar and statesman who headed the Louvre for nearly a decade, is currently under investigation for laundering and fraud, as are a number of his former colleagues and associates. In response to these reports, and in great contrast to the Met, France has urgently convened a new task force to counter cultural racketeering. This group, just announced by Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malik, will be chaired by leaders from the arts, government, and private sector, including Arnaud Oseredczuk, Marie-Christine Labourdette, and Christian Giacomotto. Malik has requested their report by this summer.

It is critical that the Met take steps to regain public trust. The museum is now setting the standard for what not to do on the U.S. art market, when it should be the gold standard for due diligence and transparency. We urge the Met to follow France’s example and put together a task force of distinguished experts to uncover why these ethical and legal lapses happened, and more importantly, ensure they never happen again.

In response to the recent developments, the Met has denied any wrongdoing, instead referring to itself as “a victim of an international criminal organization.” However, in the last decade, even separate from this investigation, the museum has been no stranger to government seizures or repatriations. It has been forced to return millions of dollars worth of stolen art to countries around the world, including not only Egypt, but Cambodia, Italy, Lebanon, Libya, and Nepal.

You can view some of these cultural treasures, along with others recovered from the New York art market, on our interactive timeline here.