The Manhattan District Attorney Has Returned 27 Looted Antiquities Worth a Combined $3.8 Million to Cambodia

The United States returned nearly 30 antiquities worth a combined $3.8 million to Cambodia this week. The objects, which include several Angkorian Buddhist statues and Hindu statues, were seized from two New York art dealers who are alleged to have separately used their galleries to offload smuggled and stolen antiquities.  

“The repatriation of these 27 stunning relics to the people of Cambodia restores an important link between the nation’s classical Angkor era and its modern customs and beliefs that, for far too long, was disrupted by the greed of stolen antiquities traffickers,” New York District Attorney Cy Vance said in a statement. 

The works were handed over in an official repatriation ceremony on Friday attended by Vance, the Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona, and other officials including from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. Image courtesy of the Office of the District Attorney of New York

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. Image courtesy of the Office of the District Attorney of New York

The items returned include 24 seized in connection with the investigation of disgraced dealer Subhash Kapoor and three tied to the investigation of gallerist Nancy Wiener.

The long-running investigation into Kapoor and his co-conspirators accuses them of illegal looting, exportation, and sale of ancient art from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, Myanmar, and other nations.

Kapoor and the other defendants had a pattern of smuggling looted antiquities through his Madison Avenue gallery, Art of the Past, according to authorities. Over the course of nine years, they tracked and recovered more than 2,500 objects that had passed through the dealership with an estimated value of more than $143 million, according to a statement. 

The D.A. first issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor in 2012. In July 2020, the office filed extradition paperwork for the dealer, who is currently in prison in India pending the completion of his ongoing trial on smuggling grounds in Tamil Nadu. “We continue to urge Indian authorities to expedite the extradition,” a spokesperson for the D.A.’s office said.

Wiener, meanwhile, was charged in December 2016 with criminal possession of stolen property and conspiracy. According to the D.A., between at least 1999 and 2016, she allegedly used her eponymous New York gallery to smuggle, sell, and launder millions of dollars worth of antiquities from many of the same countries outlined in the charges against Kapoor.

Both dealers face up to 25 years in prison.

“The win-win policy of the Royal Government that has brought peace to Cambodia is a strong foundation for the preservation of the nation’s culture,” said the Cambodian arts minister Phoeurng Sackona in a statement. He added that even amid the challenges of the pandemic, Cambodia “remains committed to finding and bringing back our ancestors’ souls that departed their motherland over a number of years, including during a period of war.”

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The Museum of the Bible Must Once Again Return Artifacts, This Time an Entire Warehouse of 5,000 Egyptian Objects

The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC has returned some 5,000 artifacts to the Egyptian government, after years of talks between agencies including the Department of Homeland Security and the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The objects have been held at the Museum since its opening in 2016. Egypt has been seeking repatriation of the objects, which it says were smuggled illegally out of the country, for just as long.

The objects include funerary masks; fragments of coffins; a set of portraits of the dead; heads of stone statues; manuscripts of Christian prayers written in both Arabic and Coptic, and just Arabic; and pieces of papyrus with text in Coptic and Greek, as well as hieratic and demotic script. The pieces will be displayed in Cairo’s Coptic Museum.

According to Hisham Al Laithi, who heads the country’s antiquities registration center, the objects were not taken from Egyptian warehouses or museums. Instead they were smuggled after being illegally excavated.

Artifacts returned to Egypt from the Museum of the Bible. Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Artifacts returned to Egypt from the Museum of the Bible. Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The Museum has been plagued by issues of suspicious and incomplete provenance and has returned thousands of artifacts to Iraq and Egypt since opening in 2017. Founder and board chairman Steve Green is also the president of Hobby Lobby craft stores, and has a personal collection valued at $30 million, which he began amassing in 2009.

In 2015, the Green family was investigated for importing looted clay tablets from Israel, which were shipped in 2011 to Oklahoma City, where Hobby Lobby is headquartered, with plans to be displayed at the museum when it opened. The shipment was labeled as “tile samples.” Despite the fact that the museum maintained that clerical and paperwork errors were to blame, Hobby Lobby returned more than 5,000 artifacts smuggled from Iraq and paid a $3 million fine.

In 2018, the Museum acknowledged that fragments in its Dead Sea Scrolls collection showed “characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin” after undergoing x-ray and other testing. The museum removed five of the objects, and noted that it would continue to engage researchers to verify contested artifacts. In March 2020, it was announced that all 16 fragments in the museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls were fake. The museum has also returned 13 ancient bible fragments accused of being stolen from the Egypt Exploration Society at Oxford University by a professor in the department.

Steve Green in 2017. Photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Steve Green in 2017. Photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The onslaught of bad publicity stemming from Green’s dubious collecting practices has prompted him to issue statements both about his naiveté in the early years of his acquisitions, and in the museum’s efforts to return property to their countries of origin. “The criticism of the museum resulting from my mistakes was justified,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

In a statement on the museum’s website posted this week, Green detailed the process of returning the 5,500 papyri fragments and other Egyptian artifacts, writing that on January 7, “we transferred control of the fine art storage facility that housed the 5,000 Egyptian items to the U.S. government as part of a voluntary administrative process. We understand the U.S. government has now delivered the papyri to Egyptian officials.”

The statement also announced that on January 27, the museum initiated a shipment of more than 8,000 clay objects to Baghdad’s Iraq Museum.

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