Home again: VMFA returns ancient works to their countries of origin
44 pieces are back in Italy, Egypt and Türkiye
Free Press staff report | 12/7/2023, 6 p.m.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) announced Tuesday that it has deaccessioned and returned 44 works of ancient art following an investigation by the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security into the global trafficking of looted or stolen antiquities.
On May 1, 2023, VMFA received a summons from the Department of Homeland Security and the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office pertaining to a group of 28 ancient art objects in the collection that had been identified as possibly looted or stolen.
The museum was asked to supply all documents and photographs related to sales receipts, invoices and bills of sale; shipping and storage records; import and export documents; consignment agreements; appraisal documentation; provenance and provenance research; catalogues, brochures and marketing materials; and any correspondence related to these 28 objects.
According to a VMFA news release, the museum fully complied with this request and, based on the evidence the museum supplied, another 29 works were added to the summons on June 6, 2023. VMFA then submitted information on another four works, added at the museum’s request, bringing the total number of works under investigation to 61.
On Oct. 17, 2023, VMFA met with Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and Robert Mancene, the special agent handling the investigation from Homeland Security Investigations. Col. Bogdanos and special agent Mancene presented the museum with irrefutable evidence that 44 of the 61 works under investigation were stolen or looted and thus warranted repatriation to their countries of origin: Italy, Egypt or Türkiye.
The works include a bronze Etruscan warrior that was stolen from Room VIII of the Museo Civico Archeologico (Archaeological Museum) in Bologna, Italy, in 1963. The other 43 works were looted from sites in Italy, Egypt and Türkiye as part of an international criminal conspiracy involving antiquities traffickers, smugglers and art dealers that is being actively investigated by the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security.
“The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts returns any works in its collection that are discovered to be unlawfully held,” said VMFA’s Director and CEO Alex Nyerges. “The museum takes seriously, and responds to, all restitution claims for works in our collection. This is not just our policy. It is the right thing to do.”
VMFA’s Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education Michael R. Taylor noted that “stolen or looted art has no place in our galleries or collection, so we are delighted to return these works to their countries of origin.
The museum has safely delivered the 44 objects to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which will facilitate the return of these objects to Italy, Egypt and Türkiye.”