In the village of Bungmati, Nepal, above an ancient spring, stand two stone shrines and a temple. One of those shrines has a large hole where a statue of Shreedhar Vishnu, the Hindu protector god, used to be. Carved by master artisans nearly a thousand years ago, the sandstone god was flanked by the Hindu goddess Laxmi and the winged demigod Garuda and is considered a protective figure. For many years members of the local community carefully tended and worshipped the idol.

“When women started their labor pain, our elders used to come to put mustard oil on the statue of Shreedhar Vishnu so that the women giving birth would be safe and the childbirth would be easy,” recalled Krishna Bhakti Mali, a 53-year-old resident of Bungmati.

Sometime in the early 1980s that tradition abruptly ended when thieves removed the 20-inch statue. Mali’s neighbor, a man named Buddha Ratna Tuladhar, recalled how the community was “overwhelmed by melancholy” over its loss.

“We kept hoping the statue would be restored, but it never was,” he said.

The Shreedhar Vishnu (Vishnu flanked by Laxmi and Garuda), an 11th century sculpture from Nepal. Image: via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

About a decade after the theft, and on the other side of the world, a wealthy American collector donated the statue to New York City’s famed Metropolitan Museum of Art. There it would remain for nearly 30 years until an anonymous Facebook account called the Lost Arts of Nepal identified it, in 2021. Although the Met has since removed the statue from its publicly listed collection, signaling that it may soon be returned, the damage to the Bungmati community was already done.

“Nepal has a living religion where these idols are actively worshipped in temples. People pray to them and take them out during festivals for ceremonies,” said Roshan Mishra, a volunteer with the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, a coalition formed to restore the country’s lost heritage.“When relics are stolen, those festivals stop. Each stolen statue erodes our culture. Our traditions fade and are eventually forgotten.”

In the antiquities trade, the Met’s reputation has begun to erode. Over the last two years, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its media partners have reported on the Met’s acquisition practices — often in relation to a trove of items obtained from Cambodia in an era when that country’s cultural heritage was sold off wholesale to the highest bidder.

A broader examination of the Met’s antiquities collection, conducted by ICIJ, Finance Uncovered and other media partners in recent months, raises new concerns over the origin of the museum’s inventory of ancient statues, friezes and other relics.

What the Met decides to do about these concerns will have consequences beyond the museum and may influence what the public can expect from museums all over the world.

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‘The Met has it all’

In the beginning an informal gallery inside a former Fifth Avenue residence, the Metropolitan Museum of Art first opened the doors to its own building in 1880, long after its counterparts in Paris and London. The museum got its start with the purchase of 174 paintings. The galleries at France’s palatial Louvre already held thousands of works, many inherited from the nation’s colonial exploits.

Even in the 1960s, the largest museum in North America was still playing catch-up. The Met’s leadership aggressively sought major acquisitions and took a casual approach to, and at times embraced, antiquities smuggling as a mainstay of the museum’s sourcing. Under then-Director Thomas Hoving, the Met embarked on a vigorous buying spree in an effort to build out an antiquities collection that could match rivals in London and Paris. Over the following decades, the institution filled its halls and warehouses with treasures from Greece, Italy, Egypt, India, Cambodia and elsewhere.

Thomas Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, left, pictured in 1976 with the solid gold mask of Tutankhamun that was part of a traveling exhibit. Image: Bettman Archive / Getty Images

“Not a single decade of any civilization that took root on earth is not represented by some worthy piece,” Hoving later wrote of the results of work he had begun. “The Met has it all.”

And seemingly more than it should. Today, governments, law enforcement officials and researchers have linked a mounting number of the Met’s relics to looters and traffickers. While the Met has voluntarily returned some items, prosecutors have seized others.

Reporters reviewed the museum’s catalog 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.

In a 1994 memoir, Hoving wrote that his address book of “smugglers and fixers” and other art world acquaintances “was longer than anyone else’s in the field.” Last year, the Met’s former curator of East Asian art, Martin Lerner, said he relied on “the goodwill and integrity” of dealers like his friend Douglas Latchford, who was charged in late 2019 with antiquities trafficking. (The indictment was dismissed after Latchford died in 2020.)

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.”

An ongoing problem for countries hoping to recover stolen works, and for law enforcement officials investigating suspect collections, is that many relics in the world’s largest museums lack high-quality origin records. This makes it difficult to know whether antiquities were stolen and illegally sold before being acquired by a museum.

ICIJ and Finance Uncovered found that hundreds of antiquities in the Met’s collection have no records going back to a country of origin. A look at the museum’s catalog of more than 250 Nepali and Kashmiri antiquities, for example, found that only three have any origin records explaining how they left the regions. (ICIJ focused on these specific collections because Nepal and Kashmir have experienced heavy looting that received relatively little international news coverage).

The Met sets the tone for museums around the world … If the Met is letting all of these things fall through the cracks, what hope do we have for the rest of the art market? — Tess Davis, Antiquities Coalition

Investigators’ interest in the Met’s collections, along with stepped-up media coverage, has caused experts in the antiquities trade to wonder how many more pieces in the museum’s catalog could be vulnerable to confiscation, and what that might mean for the art industry at large.

“The Met sets the tone for museums around the world,” said Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, an organization that campaigns against the trafficking of cultural artifacts. “If the Met is letting all of these things fall through the cracks, what hope do we have for the rest of the art market?”

‘We all believe the stuff was illegally dug up’

Hoving, the Met’s director from 1967 to 1977, is credited with transforming it into a world-class museum of major works. In his memoir, he describes how his decade of aggressive acquisition drew upon an array of illicit sourcing. Being an accomplice to art smugglers, he wrote, was a necessary role for a Met director. He had approved the purchase of a large batch of Indian and Cambodian antiquities that he suspected had been smuggled.

Hoving hid diary entries detailing his misgivings about the origins of a stolen Greek ceramic work in case prosecutors came looking for evidence. And when Turkish authorities asked for the return of allegedly stolen relics from the Met, he made a striking admission of guilt to a fellow curator.

“We all believe the stuff was illegally dug up,” Hoving recalled having told a longtime Greek curator. “For Christ’s sake, if the Turks come up with the proof from their side, we’ll give the East Greek treasure back. And that’s policy. We took our chances when we bought the material.”

The Met’s lax approach to acquisitions has subjected large parts of its catalog to questions today.

“The Met was established to be in competition with the major museums around the world,” said Erin Thompson, professor of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It wants one of everything. When you put those conditions together, it’s pretty dangerous in terms of making the most ethical decisions.”

Hoving wrote that late in his tenure at the Met, he attempted to change the museum’s practices. In the early 1970s, he attended UNESCO hearings on looted antiquities and came away feeling that “the age of piracy had ended.” He “decided to change the Metropolitan’s free-wheeling methods of collecting.”

There is little evidence, though, that the Met tightened its acquisition standards in the years that followed. The number of pieces susceptible to claims of looting only grew.

The Kardashian connection

There may be no person in the world photographed more than Kim Kardashian, but in 2018 she appeared in an image that had a stunning impact on the antiquities trade. The reality TV superstar, outfitted in a gold Versace gown, posed alongside a gold Egyptian coffin inside a private gallery at the star-studded Met Gala. In doing so, she inadvertently revealed to the public an Egyptian work crafted more than 2,000 years ago. It turned out that the Met had bought the piece from a dealer who had provided the museum with a poorly forged export license. An investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office determined that the coffin had indeed been looted from Egypt. In early 2019, the museum agreed to return it.

Kim Kardashian arrives at the 2018 Met Gala. Image: Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for New York Magazine

In September 2021, authorities seized more than a hundred pieces from one of the museum’s billionaire donors, Michael Steinhardt. The action was part of a deferred-prosecution agreement struck between Steinhardt and the district attorney’s office and involved some pieces that had been shown at the Met. The agreement bans Steinhardt from collecting antiquities for life. A Met gallery of Greek antiquities is named after Steinhardt and his wife, but the Met has not commented on the Steinhardt seizures.

Throughout 2022, U.S. authorities seized at least 29 items from the Met’s collection — including Greek busts, Egyptian bronzes and ancient plates, helmets and statues. There are items made of gold, bronze and terracotta, and they were pillaged from around the Mediterranean and India. The investigators responsible for the seizures are part of an antiquities-trafficking unit led by Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. Bogdanos’s unit has worked with agents in Homeland Security Investigations, a unit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Bogdanos said that his office is not investigating the Met specifically but that prominent pieces in its collection have been swept up in investigations primarily focused on individual traffickers. In its five years of operation, his unit has begun to develop a fuller picture of international trafficking rings, and Bogdanos said he expects the pace of its actions to accelerate as a result.

The Met is not alone in its struggles. Around the world, museums are facing a reckoning over how to deal with looted items in their collections. Just last year, London’s Horniman Museum, Washington’s Smithsonian Institution and various German museums and private collectors repatriated items looted from Nigeria. And in the first two months of this year, museums and private collectors from the U.S., Spain and Australia have repatriated dozens of looted relics to their countries of origin. Central to the issue are problems endemic to the antiquities market, in which transactions worth millions of dollars are sometimes conducted with no due diligence on the part of museums or auction houses.

“The antiquities market has been called the largest unregulated market in the world,” said Angela Chiu, an independent researcher and expert on Asian art and the antiquities market. “It’s self-regulating, and you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.”

This difficulty of confirming an object’s origin history has caused some in the art world to rethink whether museums should be buying antiquities at all. The National Gallery of Australia returned more than a dozen sculptures — bought through notorious antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor for more than $8.7 million — upon learning that they were stolen. Museum officials also made the decision to stop participating in the antiquities market entirely.

“It’s very, very rare for objects to have the level of provenance that we would need to be able to ethically acquire them,” said Bronwyn Campbell, the National Gallery’s senior provenance curator. “We’ve judged that the antiquities market is just too risky and ethically fraught, and would prefer instead to explore new and creative ways of representing diverse cultures by working collaboratively with source countries and communities.”

A sixth century sculpture of a Hindu deity, a marble head of a Greek goddess from around 200 B.C. and statues of mythical Greek figures that date to the Roman Empire are among nearly two dozen allegedly trafficked ancient relics from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that U.S. authorities targeted in 2022. Image: Supreme Court of the State of New York

‘This is a mafia-run business’

In the 1950s, the Met began acquiring pieces from Robert E. Hecht, an American-born antiquities dealer who spent decades running afoul of authorities and was ultimately tried on charges of antiquities smuggling in Italy. In 1959 and 1961, Italian prosecutors charged Hecht with antiquities smuggling, and in 1973, they issued an arrest warrant for him that was later revoked. But the Met kept buying from him. The Italian charges in a subsequent against Hecht were ultimately dismissed because the statute of limitations expired. Hecht, who died in 2012 at the age of 92, denied involvement in the illegal exportation of art.

Bruce McNall, Hecht’s former business partner who helped Hecht sell pieces to the Met, told ICIJ that the museum asked little about how the pieces were acquired. “I don’t think Bob [Hecht] would disclose specifically too often where he got things,” McNall said. “Did I know the things were coming from illegal sites? No, but I suspected it. But we never really went into it at length.”

McNall said he sold one Greek vase to the Met despite knowing nothing about how Hecht had acquired it. He also said the Met’s esteemed classics curator, Dietrich von Bothmer, “did not ask me for any details about its origin or where it was found.”

The Met still holds nearly two dozen pieces once owned by Hecht, including seven Greek vases. The Met offers no provenance or history of ownership that explains how pieces tied to Hecht left their home countries.

McNall said he avoided the underworld that supplied his business partner with relics. “This is a mafia-run business, and you have to be kind of careful,” McNall said of Hecht’s dealings in Italy and Turkey. “These are tough guys, so my view of it always was: ‘Let Bob handle it.’ I don’t want to deal with that shit. I’m not going to go over there and deal with these kind of guys.”

Museum records of Hecht’s most notable sale to the Met, a Greek vase for $1 million, show the museum’s eagerness to acquire unique relics — and that few questions were apparently asked of Hecht. “The vase, if acquired, would not only raise the stature of the Greek and Roman collections but would also be considered one of the greatest objects in the Museum,” according to the minutes of a Met acquisitions committee meeting about the purchase. A summary of the committee’s discussion makes no mention of the vase’s origin apart from identifying Hecht as the seller.

Notes from the Met’s acquisition committee discussing the Euphronios Krater. Image: Euphronios Krater photo by Sailko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Hoving later became an advocate for repatriating stolen relics and joined a campaign to pressure the Met to repatriate the vase. In 2008 after a long-running criminal investigation into the piece’s origin, the museum returned the vase to Italy, where it was dug up.

Italian prosecutors believed that Hecht bought stolen relics from a high-profile antiquities smuggler named Gianfranco Becchina. Convicted in 2011 by an Italian court for trafficking antiquities, Becchina was also another supplier of works to the Met. Although the Met holds no works with origin records citing Becchina by name, the museum has seven pieces from Becchina’s Swiss gallery, Galerie Antike Kunst Palladion. Becchina was a source of Met items seized by the Manhattan district attorney’s office in August, according to the office.

The Met also has more than 800 pieces in its collection — by far the largest portion in ICIJ’s analysis — once owned by Jonathan P. Rosen, another close business partner of Hecht’s. The museum received these both before and after Rosen was charged along with Hecht in an Italian antiquities trafficking case in 1997.

A wealthy banking official and real estate investor, Rosen avidly collected Asian and Mesopotamian relics and co-owned with Hecht Atlantis Antiquities, a Manhattan gallery in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the mid-2000s, Rosen’s name emerged in connection with Atlantis Antiquities when Italian prosecutors alleged that the gallery had sold stolen Italian treasures. In 2008, the Cleveland Museum of Art returned allegedly stolen relics it received from Rosen.

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2013 that Cornell University agreed to return 10,000 ancient tablets to Iraq that had been donated by Rosen and his family. Scholars believed the pieces had been looted from Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War; the return followed a U.S. federal investigation into the tablets. An attorney for Rosen told the newspaper that the tablets “were legally acquired” and that the federal investigation found “no evidence of wrongdoing.”

The charge against Rosen in Italy was cited in a sprawling criminal case against Giacomo Medici, a notorious antiquities smuggler. When Medici was convicted in 2004, the Italian court’s written judgment cited Rosen’s dealings at length. It said that Rosen had helped to sell an Etruscan tripod to the J. Paul Getty Museum and claimed the piece was legally exported from Italy. The tripod was, in fact, stolen, according to the judgment, and the Getty subsequently returned the piece.

Guglielmo Muntoni, a judge in Rome who presided over the Medici case, said that Rosen was never brought to trial due to a statute of limitations expiring  and because an important piece linked to Rosen was returned from the U.S. to Italy. A representative of Rosen’s told ICIJ that Rosen was not able to comment because of poor health.

Celestial dancer (Devata), an 11th century sculpture from India. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Met’s collection also contains 85 pieces once owned by Subhash Kapoor or his gallery. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has described Kapoor as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.” He was arrested in Germany in 2011 and convicted in India this year of trafficking what prosecutors said amounts to more than $100 million in antiquities.

Among the Met’s high-profile antiquities from India, Celestial Dancer was acquired in a deal involving Art of the Past, Kapoor’s Manhattan gallery at the time. In 2013, two years after Kapoor’s arrest, the gallery’s manager pleaded guilty to selling stolen Asian works. Yet in 2015, as Kapoor awaited trial on smuggling charges in India, the Met accepted the piece as a donation from wealthy collectors who had purchased it from his gallery.

The Met’s publicly available origin records for Celestial Dancer do not give any hint of how the work left India. An archived version of the Met’s website from 2016 states that the piece “ornamented a north Indian Hindu temple” in present-day Uttar Pradesh. This language no longer appears on the museum’s website.

In response to ICIJ’s questions, the Met provided no information about where the piece came from or how it left the country.

‘Like having a heap of cocaine’

More than 40 years after the theft, the people of Bungmati, in Nepal, still go without their statue of Shreedhar Vishnu. But, with the aid of Lost Arts of Nepal, volunteers have traced three additional relics allegedly looted from Nepali temples to the Met’s collection, a claim they support with archival photos showing matches to temple relics.

Site visits and interviews with locals confirmed two of the three matches: a smooth, hand-painted wooden statue of a Nrityadevi, known as the Goddess of Dance, and an elaborately carved wooden bracket, allegedly stolen from a temple in the world heritage site of Bhaktapur. The Nrityadevi had been looted from the temple of I Baha Bahi, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Kathmandu Valley, according to members of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign.

Guarded by two black stone lions, the two-story brick, wood and mud building once held numerous statues of gods and goddesses. For many years during the holy month of August, the relics were taken out and put on display. Religious devotees from near and far gathered to celebrate the Bahidyo Bwoyego festival, during which they sang hymns, chanted prayers and worshipped the idols. In 1970, the temple was raided and the community’s gods and goddesses were stolen.

By cross-referencing photos taken in 1969, Lost Arts of Nepal was able to match the lost Nrityadevi to an item in the Met’s collection, and claims to have traced several of the temple’s other lost relics to the collections of other American museums. Members of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign have asked Nepal’s government to help them approach the museums and get the relics back.

“I understand the concept of preservation, but taking an object away from its living culture and putting it behind glass in a museum and then saying, ‘We are preserving this object for that country’ — it’s just completely wrong,” said Roshan Mishra of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign.

Ken Weine, a spokesperson for the Met, said the museum is “presently in direct discussion with Nepal regarding select objects from the Museum’s collection, and looks forward to a constructive resolution and ongoing and open dialogue.” He did not say which items were being discussed or whether the museum had plans to return them.

“We believe we will get these relics back,” Mishra said. “But we do not know when.”

Even if all of these items are repatriated, hundreds of Nepali relics of uncertain provenance will remain in the collection of the Met and other museums around the world.

Having these Nepali pieces on display, it’s like having a heap of cocaine in the middle of the room. — Erin Thompson, Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign

Because Nepal has had a ban on the export of culturally significant materials dating back to 1956, the vast majority of items acquired by museums outside the country after that year are likely stolen, according to Emiline Smith, a lecturer in art crime and criminology at the University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.

“The Met shouldn’t have been dealing with [Nepali] objects at all,” Smith said. “Even if you have an object with provenance dating back to 1970, it should not have been traded after 1956.”

“Having these Nepali pieces on display, it’s like having a heap of cocaine in the middle of the room,” observed Erin Thompson, who is also an adviser with the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign. “There is no legal” justification, she added.

The Met’s Kashmiri collection is also rife with questions, according to experts. A disputed region between India and Pakistan, Kashmir’s temples have been the target of heavy looting, most of it during periods of conflict. An ICIJ and Finance Uncovered analysis of 94 Kashmiri relics in the Met’s collection shows that none of them have detailed provenance explaining how they left Kashmir. Only four have information about ownership before 1970  — the year UNESCO adopted a convention protecting cultural property, making it the gold standard for provenance. Eight items were acquired through art dealers, who at one point faced indictment.

“The Met’s collection of Kashmiri artifacts are essentially blood antiquities, acquired during years when much of the population was fleeing what has been described as an ethnic cleansing,” said India Pride Project founder Vijay Kumar, who has published articles about the poorly–provenanced Indian items in the Met’s collection — and its Kashmir items in particular. “By buying these items, the museum was encouraging looting and smuggling from a known conflict zone.”

The only provenance the Met gave for nearly 15% percent of the Nepali pieces and 31% of the Kashmiri pieces in its collection was the name Samuel Eilenberg, a Columbia University math professor and avid antiquities collector who died in 1998. An itemized list appearing in an archive of his personal papers at Columbia provides details about two dozen antiquities the Met purchased for $1.5 million, including their original purchase price and country of origin.

Conspicuously missing were records of prior provenance. Eilenberg has never been accused of any antiquities-related crimes. Eilenberg worked extensively with Rosen and his files included correspondence with indicted collector Latchford.

Despite historical evidence indicating that most of the Nepali artifacts in Western collections may be stolen, most museums only repatriate on a case-by-case basis when presented with overwhelming evidence that a specific object was stolen from a specific site. Repatriations, when they do happen, are “largely performative,” according to Smith. “They have lots of other items that should also be repatriated, but the burden of proof is on the claimant and relies on evidence rules that are dictated by the global North.”

“It is heartbreaking when we have to explain to communities of origin that public and private collectors in the U.S. can keep their cultural heritage,” she added.

In the absence of more comprehensive repatriation policies, much of Nepal’s lost cultural heritage will remain behind glass in Western museums, far from their communities of origin.

“If you want to preserve cultural conservation, you need to restore these objects to the community,” Mishra said. “You need to bring them out of the museum space and reinstate them to their original temples, where a living culture is active and where the object can be worshipped and fulfills the purpose of why it was made.”

Contributors: Emilia Díaz-Struck, Karrie Kehoe, Jelena Cosic, Agustin Armendariz, Leo Sisti