A Catalogue of Shame: Probe links more than 1,000 treasures at New York's Met Museum to international traffickers
IMPACT: The following investigation splashed the Indian Express in India (with a leading editorial op-ed) and the Nepali Times in Nepal. The stories have led to calls for Western museums to rethink their collection and repatriation policies and to editorials demanding greater funding for archeological preservation.
For almost two years, in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, our reporter Malia Politzer has been investigating one of the most controversial issues in the world of museums – the provenance of their often stolen artefacts.
While these treasures have for decades been displayed almost as trophies in large Western museums, Malia’s reporting has also shown what impact their removals have had on the communities from which they were taken.
Having previously worked on stories involving the origins of many Cambodian treasures in public and private collections, Malia again teamed up with her former colleagues at the ICIJ, and also with reporters from the India Express in India, L’Espresso in Italy and the Nepali Times in Nepal, for their next high profile investigation…shining a light on the world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
As it vied to compete with the likes of the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London, the Met amassed one of the world’s largest collections of antiquities in the second half of the 20th Century.
But it now faces intense scrutiny from US police and federal agents investigating international art smuggling.
Malia and her colleagues decided to examine the Met’s own catalogue to check what evidence the institution itself might hold.
By identifying artefacts with questionable provenance records, as well as checking archives for art purchases by major museum donors, the reporters found more than one thousand items that had passed through indicted or convicted antiquities traffickers.
The team also researched the history of the museum and found a memoir by former director Thomas Hoving admitting to sourcing works from “smugglers and fixers” in an effort to rapidly build up the museum’s encyclopaedic collection in the 1960s and beyond.
Reporters reviewed the museum’s catalogue and found at least 1,109 pieces previously owned by people who had been either indicted or convicted of antiquities crimes; 309 of them are on display. Fewer than half of the 1,109 relics have records describing how they left the country of origin, even those that come from places that have had strict export laws for decades. Many were removed after international guidelines were already put into place to restrict the movement of antiquities across national borders, according to museum records.
More than 150 additional items in the Met’s antiquities collection passed through ownership of nearly a dozen more people or galleries from whom prosecutors seized stolen ancient works.
The Met's response...
In response to questions from reporters, the Met defended its acquisition practices. "The Met is committed to the responsible collecting of art and goes to great lengths to ensure that all works entering the collection meet the laws and strict policies in place at the time of acquisition,” said Met spokesperson Kenneth Weine. “Additionally, as laws and guidelines on collecting have changed over time, so have the Museum's policies and procedures. The Met also continually researches the history of works in the collection — often in collaboration with colleagues in countries around the world — and has a long track record of acting on new information as appropriate."
At the suggestion of art experts, reporters looked in-depth at the origins of items in the museum’s collection from Nepal and Kashmir: Kashmir has been heavily looted due to an ongoing regional conflict over the territory, and Nepal has an export ban from the 1950s that prevented a legal trade in its cultural artefacts.
As they dug for more information, reporters received a tip from the citizen’s group, the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign and the anonymous social media site Lost Arts of Nepal to look at four antiquites in the Met’s collection that they believed had been stolen from specific communities and temples.
Women worshipping at a shrine in Bangmati Village, from where a Shreedhar Vishnu idol was stolen. The idol would later appear in the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art
Finance Uncovered then approached the respected Nepali investigative reporter Namrata Sharma, who attended our training in Jakarta in 2019, to report out more of the backstory of these items, and how their thefts had affected members of the local community.
Partners also included Indian Express and the Italian publication L’Espresso, who investigated the origins of certain artefacts in the Met’s collection from India and Italy.
- Read the final article here, co-reported and written with Spencer Woodman and Delphine Reuter at the International Consortium for Investigative Reporters and Namrata Sharma, a freelancer who publishes with the Nepali Times.
- Articles published by the Indian Express can be read here, here, here and here.
- L’Espresso’s coverage (in Italian) can be found here.
- A shorter version of the article, published in the Guardian, can be read here.
- The Nepali Times version of the story can be read here.