NY District Attorney’s Office Seizes Allegedly Looted Antiquities From the Met

An ancient Egyptian model of a tomb, “Stele of Kemes” (1750-1720 BCE), was one of five objects seized from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (all images courtesy Manhattan District Attorney’s Office unless otherwise noted)

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (DA) has seized five antiquities worth over $3 million from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, alleging they were illegally trafficked. The execution of the May 19 search warrant follows the DA’s 2019 seizure of an ancient Egyptian gold coffin from the museum.

A Met spokesperson told Hyperallergic it believes the museum fell victim to an international crime ring.

The museum was apparently tricked by forged provenance documents when it purchased the gold coffin in 2017 for almost $4 million. After the DA’s investigation, it was discovered that the sarcophagus was stolen during the Arab Spring protests in 2011, which saw an increase in the looting and international sale of antiquities in the region.

The Met purchased the coffin from Parisian scholar and dealer Christophe Kunicki. A year after it was seized by the DA, Kunicki was charged in France with money laundering and fraud.

Two of the recently seized antiquities also have ties to Kuniki. The Met purchased “Fayum Portrait of a Woman” (54–68 CE) (valued at over $1.2 million) and five painted linen fragments known as the “Exodus Painting” (250–450 CE (valued at over $1.6 million) from the Pierre Bergé auction house in Paris, where Kuniki served as an “expert.”

These sales are thought to be tied to similar transactions with the Louvre Museum in Paris: Last week, French authorities charged former Louvre President Jean-Luc Martinez with complicity in fraud, accusing him of concealing the origins of $8.5 million worth of Egyptian antiquities that were also stolen during the Arab Spring.

The Met purchased “Fayum Portrait of a Woman” (54–68 CE) from a French auction house at which Kuniki served as an expert.
Five painted linen fragments showing a scene from the Book of Exodus, “Exodus Painting” (250–450 CE), valued at over $1.6 million

The sale to Martinez was brokered by Roben Dib, an art dealer in Hamburg who was arrested in March and extradited to Paris. The Washington Post reported that Dib was also a suspect in the sale of another object, a stolen Egyptian stele, to a French gallery. The object was seized in New York on its way to an art fair. The gallery sued the Pierre Bergé auction house and Kuniki, and according to the Art NewspaperKuniki and Dibs worked together on that sale.

Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, executed the 2019 investigation of the Met’s gold coffin. Bogdanos subpoenaed the communications of all Met employees involved in the sale and told the Atlantic that his findings “shocked the conscience.”

But unlike the Louvre’s former president, no one at the Met has been charged.

One of the works listed in the DA’s search warrant, “Face of a Coffin” (945–712 BCE)

The DA’s search warrant, shared with Hyperallergic, states that “there is reasonable cause to believe” the five works were stolen. In addition to the two works linked to Kunicki, the confiscated property includes the wooden face of a coffin from Northern Egypt (945–712 BCE), a limestone sculpture in the shape of a tomb known as the “Stele of Kemes” (1750– 1720 BCE) and valued at over $250,000, and the low relief “Stele of the Singer” (690–650 BCE).

Another of the works seized by the DA, “Stele of the Singer” (690–650 BCE)

When reached for comment regarding the DA investigations, a Met spokesperson directed Hyperallergic to an earlier statement.

“The Met is a victim of an international criminal organization, currently under ongoing investigation in multiple jurisdictions,” the spokesperson said in a May 26 email. “Throughout this investigation, the Met has been fully cooperative, and will continue to be so. The Museum’s employees were deceived by this criminal conspiracy.”

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