Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Met's Surrender of a Gilded Egyptian Coffin Presents a Golden Opportunity to Deter Antiquities Looting

The Metropolitan Museum of Art can fight back against antiquities trafficking by hiring a provenance curator and by fully disclosing the chain of custody of collection objects.

Nedjemankh's coffin, surrendered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week.
Nedjemankh's coffin, surrendered by
the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has surrendered a celebrated artifact from its collection. The Met announced on Friday that "it has delivered the gilded Coffin of Nedjemankh, for return to the Government of Egypt by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, after having learned the Coffin was looted from Egypt in 2011."

The spectacular, human-shaped coffin, dating from the first century B.C. and glittering in gold, anchored the popular Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin exhibition, which began in July 2018 and was scheduled to close in April 2019. With the handover of the coffin, the show abruptly came to an end.

Max Hollein, who has not yet completed his first full year on the job as the The Met's new director, now faces a multi-million dollar loss that is likely not covered by insurance and reputational harm to his institution, as well as intense scrutiny of the museum's Collections Management Policy that is supposed to "ensure[] that ... its collections are protected ...."

The district attorney's investigation hopefully leads to the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for trafficking the looted archaeological object and for lying about its provenance. Meanwhile, the museum's loss presents a golden opportunity for one of the world's leading cultural institutions to fulfill Hollein's promise last week to mitigate similar risks in the future and, in the words of Met CEO Daniel Weiss, "to deter future offenses against cultural property."

In 2017, CHL wrote that institutions lacking solid protective measures to guard against acquiring illicit artifacts would face acute legal and reputational risks. CHL asked at that time whether museums effectively shield their collections from legal confiscationposing the question soon after The Met lost a looted ancient vase to a seizure by search warrantSee Museum Loss Prevention: Apply Rigorous Due Diligence.

Now, in the wake of the relinquishment of the golden coffin, The Met's director announced, “Our museum must be a leader among our peers in the respect for cultural property and in the rigor and transparency of the policy and practices that we follow," adding, "We will learn from this eventspecifically I will be leading a review of our acquisitions program—to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future."

One way to help reduce the risk of loss is to hire a provenance curator like the one Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has, a professional whose job is to investigate the collecting histories of archaeological artifacts, paintings, and other cultural objects. That person should be full-time and have the experience to navigate the complex art and antiquities trade, which can be tempting to the black market. It is a marketplace that "faces a higher risk of exposure to dubious trade practices ... due to the volume of illegal or legally questionable transactions," as the Basel Art Trade Guidelines accurately points out.

The museum, moreover, should revive its commitment to transparency of provenance information, championed recently by Hollein in The Met's Role in Protecting Cultural Heritage (November 2018) where he writes"Transparency: ... Our goal is to publish the provenance (or known history of ownership) for all works as part of their entries in our online collection." Provenance should not be limited to "known history of ownership," of course, but must include the fullest description of an object's chain of custody.
In the present case, the museum did not publish everything known about the golden coffin. Colin Moynihan's New York Times report on the museum's surrender of the coffin, for instance, revealed that "The Met paid 3.5 million euros (about $3.95 million) for the coffin in July 2017" and that the artifact "had been purchased from an art dealer in Paris named Christophe Kunicki...." These facts did not make their way to the museum's web pages--now offline--describing the provenance of the coffin's lidbase, and pegsThe published provenance instead contained unsourced statements and noticeable gaps, stating:
The coffin was exported in 1971 from Egypt with an export license granted by the Antiquities Organization / Egyptian Museum, Cairo. It belonged to the stock of Habib Tawadrus, a dealer active since at least 1936, with a shop Habib & Company in Cairo opposite Shepheard’s Hotel, and was exported by the representative of the Tawadrus’ heirs to Switzerland. An official translation of the export license was provided by the German embassy in Cairo in February 1977 for the use of the representative and now owner in Europe. The coffin has remained in the family of that owner until its acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum in 2017.
The museum now calls this history untrue, saying in a press statement that "it recently learned that it received a false ownership history, fraudulent statements, and fake documentation, including a forged 1971 Egyptian export license for the coffin." But even when this history was believed to be true, the publicly released provenance report failed to meet rigorous due diligence expectations. Holes left important chain-of-custody questions unanswered such as:
  • Who was the source of the information that the coffin had been exported from Egypt in 1971?
  • Who was the person or entity that exported the coffin?
  • Who was the unnamed "representative of the Tawadrus’ heirs?"
  • Was the export in 1971 from Egypt to Switzerland?
  • Who imported the coffin into Switzerland?
  • Although the coffin belonged "to the stock of Habib Tawadrus," did the dealer own the coffin or simply have custody of it?
  • How did the unidentified representative of the Tawadros family take ownership of the coffin from the family?
  • Why weren't the purchase information, export paperwork, import paperwork, invoice, bill of lading, etc. describing the coffin's sale and shipment from Europe to New York published?
Both a full-time provenance curator and a complete description of a collection object's chain of custody would go far to counter the havoc caused by looted cultural artifacts that flood the art and antiquities market. The Met has the credibility, resources, and intelligence to fight back against transnational antiquities traffickers, and the surrender of the gilded coffin presents a golden opportunity.

Text and original photos copyrighted 2010-2019 by Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire, a blog commenting on matters of cultural property law, art law, art crime, cultural heritage policy, antiquities trafficking, looted, antiquities, stolen relics,smuggled antiquities, illicit antiquities, museum risk management, and archaeology. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission without the express written consent of CHL is strictly prohibited. The materials presented on this site are intended for informational purposes only and should not be used as legal advice applicable to the reader’s specific situation. In addition, the provision of this information to the reader in no way constitutes an attorney-client relationship. Blog url: