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The AC: The Met Museum Must Continue to Enhance Transparency of its Collection

March 20, 2023

The Antiquities Coalition welcomes a new feature from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (the Met), which seeks to explain how it came into possession of its “1.5 million works of art spanning 5,000 years of culture around the globe.”

In the release, published on March 13, 2023, the museum’s Director Max Hollein recognizes that “The Met is responsible for how we build and steward our collection,” and pledges that its actions will “reflect this responsibility.” The resource also stresses that the museum is fully “committed to responsible collecting,” going “to great lengths to ensure that all objects entering the collection meet our strict standards,” including not only “all legal requirements” but key ethical guidelines put forward by the Association of Art Museum Directors and others. A new website also helps the public learn about repatriations, including examples of both returned illicit antiquities and Nazi-looted art. These include a thirteenth-century wooden Temple Strut with a Salabhinka and a tenth-century stone sculpture, Shiva in Himalayan Abode with Ascetics, returned in 2021 and 2022 to the Government of Nepal; the Coffin of Nedjemankh, returned in 2019 to the Government of Egypt; two tenth-century Koh Ker stone statues of “Kneeling Attendants,” returned in 2013 to the Kingdom of Cambodia; and others. 

This step comes as the Met faces increased scrutiny of its collecting practices from such varied sources as law enforcement, investigative journalists, activists, and even comedians like John Oliver. In recent years, a police probe spanning several countries has implicated the museum in a transnational trafficking ring operating out of Egypt and war zones such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen. While no charges have yet been brought in the United States against any museum officials, including those at the Met, a related criminal case is moving forward in France against Jean-Luc Martinez, former head of the Louvre. In connection with the investigation, U.S. authorities have also seized millions of dollars worth of Egyptian treasures from the Met, alleging they were evidence of the criminal possession of stolen property and conspiracy. 

“The Met, as the largest and most-visited art museum in the Western Hemisphere, should be leading the fight against cultural racketeering,” said Deborah Lehr, Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition. “We appreciate that museum leadership is listening to calls to strengthen transparency with regards to its collections practices, but it has an opportunity—and obligation—to do more. We urge the Met to convene a task force of distinguished experts to uncover why past ethical and legal lapses happened, and more importantly, ensure they never happen again.”

The Antiquities Coalition has long called for “strong, concrete, and immediate action” from the Met, including other specific recommendations that the museum could take to regain public trust. This is even more critical given breaking news: today, March 20, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed that at least 1,109 pieces in the museum’s catalog have close ties to individuals indicted or convicted of antiquities crimes. 309 of these suspect artifacts remained on display.