Better Safe Than Sorry: American Museums Take Measures Mindful of Repatriation of African Art

The coffin of Nedjemankh (detail), which was returned to Egypt in early 2019.


This past February, the Metropolitan Museum of Art ended an exhibition earlier than expected when the centerpiece of “Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin”—after seven months on view with robust attendance figures nearing 450,000—was found to have been looted from Egypt. The museum had acquired the ornate golden coffin from the first century B.C. two years ago for €3.5 million (around $3.9 million) from Christophe Kunicki, a Parisian art dealer who supplied fake provenance records including a forged Egyptian export license dated 1971.

According to an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, however, it appeared that the coffin had been stolen from its homeland in 2011. In response to the finding, the Met agreed to turn the artifact over to the Egyptian government. But the question of how such a tainted treasure could work its way through the hallowed museum’s acquisition process remained.

“Stewards of the world’s most important artifacts have a duty to hold their acquisitions to the highest level of scrutiny,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement at the time. Max Hollein, the Met director then just a few months on the job, said, “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.” Hollein vowed that the Met would learn from the incident and that he would personally be “leading a review” of the acquisition program in order “to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future.”

The turnabout at the Met was not the first of its kind in the United States, and it won’t be the last. In fact, calls for repatriation of holdings in American museums may be about to get much more heated, as attention to the matter migrates beyond Europe and demands for closer scrutiny intensify across the globe.

“The Baltimore Museum of Art has been following the discussions and debates about repatriation very closely,” said Kevin Tervala, associate curator of African art at the BMA. The museum’s collection of African art was established in 1954 through a gift from Alan and Janet Wurtzburger and, in the years since, has grown to include more than 2,500 works ranging from ancient sculptures to contemporary paintings. The majority of these were donated by American collectors, with others purchased from dealers, galleries, or artists themselves. Continue reading…

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