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A kidnapped goddess returns home, after prosecutors expose art thieves

The Marble Head of Athena, from 200 B.C.E. and which was looted from a temple in central Italy, is displayed during a news conference and repatriation ceremony of stolen antiquities to Italy, in New York City.
Brendan McDermid
/
Reuters
The Marble Head of Athena, from 200 B.C.E. and which was looted from a temple in central Italy, is displayed during a news conference and repatriation ceremony of stolen antiquities to Italy, in New York City.

More than 70 stolen antiquities, some more than 2,000 years old, were seized from collections in the U.S. and returned to their native countries of Italy and Egypt this week.

The prized items included a mummy portrait, a marble head of the goddess Athena, and an intricately painted drinking cup.

Their return came after a string of search warrants enacted by the Manhattan District Attorney that targeted private collectors as well as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

Of the 74 antiquities, valued at more than $22 million, 27 were seized from The Met, according to statements from authorities.

"[The] pieces represent thousands of years of rich history, yet traffickers throughout Italy utilized looters to steal these items and to line their own pockets," District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr. said of the pieces returned to Italy this week. "For far too long, they have sat in museums, homes, and galleries that had no rightful claim to their ownership."

Erin Thompson is a professor of art crime at the City University of New York and said there was no question about whether the artifacts were stolen or not, but getting entities like the Met to admit it had been a work in progress.

"Right now the museums are just waiting for authorities to approach them and say there's a problem with this particular item," she said. "But the museums have all of this information about items in their collection, why aren't they the ones digging into this information?"

Thompson said that in the case of these 74 antiquities, there was one prolific smuggler at the center who was caught by Italian authorities decades ago. After seizing his records, they were able to determine many pieces that had passed through his ring.

A White-Ground Kylix from 470 B.C.E. is displayed during the news conference.
Brendan McDermid / Reuters
/
Reuters
A White-Ground Kylix from 470 B.C.E. is displayed during the news conference.

The advancement of technology had allowed for this process to become more accurate and efficient, Thompson said, but public opinion was an important factor as well.

"Instead of a source country having to say, 'Oh, please, could you maybe consider giving these things back?' Now they're making justified demands much more directly," she said. "[They are] asking, even in this case, 'Hey, museum, you knew this information. You knew that these artifacts came to you through galleries that were associated with this smuggler. Why didn't you do the research to figure out if these were looted?'"

In a statement to NPR, a Met spokesperson said each of these objects had "unique and complex circumstances."

"And with all, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been fully supportive of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office investigations," the statement read. "The museum is a leader in the field in comprehensively reviewing individual matters, and it has returned many pieces based upon thorough review and research – oftentimes in partnership with law enforcement and outside experts."

They added that, "The norms of collecting have changed significantly in recent decades, and the Met's policies and procedures in this regard have been under constant review over the past 20 years."

Thompson said that repatriation was an important part of honoring and respecting cultural heritage, and provided a step into the future of museum curation and innovation that involved the owners of artifacts in the process as well.

The Bronze Bust of a Man displayed at the repatriation ceremony.
Brendan McDermid / Reuters
/
Reuters
The Bronze Bust of a Man displayed at the repatriation ceremony.

"If you look at museums who have entered into negotiations with source communities, it's not just a situation of either it stays in the museum or it goes back home and disappears from public view," she said. "There are really creative, innovative, exciting partnerships that can be worked out for communities who come in and offer additional interpretation, who do rituals, who make the museum galleries richer even if they don't want to take everything home."

"So I urge museums to think of this as a chance to add to their galleries rather than just see everything vanish."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Manuela López Restrepo
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.