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The Garden of Time: Met Gala Looks vs. Loot 2024 Edition

May 7, 2024

On May 6, the elite of the fashion and artistic world graced the red carpet for the annual Met Gala, held, as customary at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). The Antiquities Coalition marked the occasion with the second annual Looks vs. Loot – an ongoing initiative highlighting the rampant illicit trade in antiquities. This is an homage to cultural masterpieces returned from America’s largest art collection – the Met –  which are symbolically represented through the fashion on display at the Gala.

This year’s Gala theme, “The Garden of Time” is based on a short story by JG Ballard and believed to be a metaphor for the evolution of time. As an angry mob gathers to storm their home, Count Axel and his wife try to delay the inevitable with “time flowers” to turn back the clock. When the “disorganized tide” finally arrives, the Count and his wife are found as elegant statues gracing their beautiful garden for all time. 

The story ends at this point. Time does evolve, as Mr. Ballard points out, as does the ethics of society. Just imagine, in the period of Count Axel, the mob’s actions when they discovered the statues.

Would they destroy them, as did the Taliban with the Bamiyan Buddhas, to erase a part of history with which they disagreed? 

Or would they loot them and sell them to museums or collectors as we have seen in recent years, including after the Egyptian Revolution?

The Met Gala is all about art and style. And while the Met Museum is a fitting venue for hosting this glamourous evening, it should take note of the underlying message in the evening’s theme of the inevitability of change.

Today’s museums are responsible for setting legal and ethical standards for all who operate within the art market. In recent months, institutions like the Met have taken strides to improve policies and practices on ancient art and artifacts, increasing transparency and due diligence surrounding its collection. 

These important steps came after the Met was implicated in a series of scandals, disputes, law enforcement investigations, and even criminal prosecutions regarding its collection. A 2023 exposé from 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 which remained on display. 

Institutions like the Met, with an endowment of $3.3 billion and an annual budget of around $300 million, should be the gold standard in the United States and even the world. Last May, the Met signaled a major shift in its approach to contested antiquities. Max Hollein, the Director of the Met, publicly committed to new policies to enhance transparency via a new provenance research team. This is a step in the right direction and part of the AC’s specific recommendations on how museums can stay vigilant against the illicit trafficking of antiquities.  

As the art market strives for greater transparency, the Antiquities Coalition celebrates these recent steps taken by the Met and looks forward to future steps the institution will take to right past actions.

Click through our favorite looks vs. loot from past Met Galas, comparing celebrity fashion statements with contested objects seized and returned from the Met’s collection.

Looks vs. Loot 2024