Manhattan DA Bragg repatriates two stone carvings to China that were looted from ancient tomb in 1990s

May 10, 2023
Ben Marquis

When not going after a former president or ignoring violent street crime, progressive Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has been hard at work attempting to repatriate looted and stolen pieces of ancient art to their nations of origin.

On Tuesday, DA Bragg announced that he had successfully returned a pair of stone carvings dated to the 7th century and valued collectively at around $3.5 million to the People's Republic of China, according to a press release.

The two pieces, part of a larger Zoroastrian funerary platform, are believed to have been looted from an ancient tomb in the early 1990s and then smuggled out of China before ending up eventually in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ancient stone carvings returned to China

This announcement from DA Bragg is merely the latest in a series of antiquities repatriation efforts that stem from a recently concluded criminal investigation by the DA and Manhattan's Antiquities Trafficking Unit of a wealthy woman named Shelby White who had compiled a massive collection of ancient artwork over the decades, some of which has since been revealed to have been previously looted or stolen.

It is unclear if White, who was a board member of the Met Museum and had donated the two stone carvings to it, will face any sort of criminal charges, as Bragg has thanked her for her assistance and cooperation with the probe that began several years ago.

One of the carvings had been on display at the museum while the other, which was still covered in dirt, had been sitting in a storage area for about 25 years until they were seized by the ATU during the investigation.

The press release noted that the two stone carvings were formally returned to China in a repatriation ceremony at the Chinese Consulate in New York, and Bragg said in a statement, "It is a shame that these two incredible antiquities were stolen and at least one remained largely hidden from the public view for nearly three decades. While their total value is more than $3 million, the incredible detail and beauty of these pieces can never be truly captured by a price tag."

Counsel General Huang Ping, who accepted the two carvings on behalf of China, said, "Cultural property embodies human wisdom and creativity. They are the link between the past and the present. They are also an important bridge connecting different countries and cultures. That is why we regard the crackdown on crimes against cultural property a sacred mission."

Series of antiquities repatriations in past two months

It was just a couple of weeks ago that DA Bragg similarly announced on April 28 that three antiquities, including alabaster figurines and a silver vessel, had formally repatriated to Yemen but would remain in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. for the time being due to the ongoing civil war and unrest in that Middle Eastern nation.

On March 31, Bragg announced that an 11th-century carving from a temple door support piece had been returned to the people of Cambodia, while on March 22 he revealed that 12 antiquities valued collectively at more than $33 million had been repatriated to the Republic of Turkey after having been looted from archeological sites.

And, just one day earlier, a March 21 release let it be known that Greece had accepted the repatriation of a $20 million collection of ancient artwork that included rare coins and carved figurines, among other items.

Metropolitan Museum conducting its own internal review of antiquities with suspicious "provenance"

France's AFP reported that Met Museum Director Max Hollein announced in a memo to staffers that an internal investigation had been launched to study the "provenance" of some of the museum's roughly 1.5 million pieces of art to determine if any had originally been looted or stolen prior to ending up on the antiquities market, in private collections, and in the museum itself, and to repatriate any items if necessary.

"We will broaden, expedite, and intensify our research into all works that came to the museum from art dealers who have been under investigation," Hollein said, and noted that most of the looted or stolen pieces had been acquired by collectors or the museum during the 1970s-90s, "when there was less information available and less scrutiny on the provenance of many of these works."

According to DA Bragg's latest press release, during his tenure his office and the ATU have recovered more than 800 antiquities valued at more than $155 million collectively that originated in 24 different countries, and during that same time span have repatriated more than 950 antiquities worth more than $165 million collectively to 19 different countries.

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