Former Metropolitan director Phillipe de Montebello famously faced one of the greatest challenges of his career over looted Greek antiquities in the museum's collection, ultimately diffusing it with his ingenious “returns-for-loans” strategy. Now, new director Thomas Campbell faces a fresh battle over dodgy antiquities, this time from Turkey. And it's heating up.
At the beginning of the month the Turkish government made aggressive moves to assert its claims on supposedly looted objects, banning its own institutions from loaning antiquities to museums including the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Met, until artifacts held in those museums’ collections were returned. While the Art Newspaper reported that 12 unidentified items at the Metropolitan were in dispute, the blog Chasing Aphrodite is now claiming that the number has escalated to 18, and has even offered a specific list of the contested artifacts.
The items in question — all but two of which are listed in a document posted by Chasing Aphrodite — include several pieces that are currently on view in the Met’s Ancient Near East Galleries. Among them are a gold Hittite figurine from the 13th or 14th century BC, early Bronze Age jars, and intricate metalwork vessels in the shape of a bull and a stag. Turkey claims that the artifacts were excavated and transported out of the country illegally, following the passage of a 1906 law that gave the country ownership of all such objects. All the artifacts named in the request come from the Norbert Schimmel Collection. Schimmel, a longtime Met boardmember, donated the collection to the museum in 1989, the year before his death.
Harold Holzer, the Met’s spokesman, offered the following statement to Chasing Aphrodite about the new brouhaha:
This past fall, The Metropolitan Museum of Art was contacted by officials from the Turkish Ministry of Culture with regard to 18 works of art in our collection. The Ministry requested provenance information, which we are in the process of providing. Because this matter is currently under discussion with the Turkish government, the Museum will have no further comment at this time — except to acknowledge with appreciation that Turkey has long been a valued lender to significant exhibitions at the Metropolitan, and we look forward to the continuation of that relationship.
This may only be the beginning of a new round of antiquities woes for U.S. museums. Chasing Aphrodite also claims that the Turkish government has made requests to "several other American museums" to return illegal artifacts, though details of those disputes remain vague. Stay tuned.