It’s time for some transparency from the manhattan D.A.’s office over antiquities

It’s time for some transparency from the manhattan D.A.’s office over antiquities

Three developments in recent weeks have raised questions once again about the activities of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and its antiquities unit. Separately they are of concern; together they demand some clear answers. 

The first involves the claim that 19 items returned to Italy as “illicit” were worth $19 million. The figures simply didn’t add up according to expert valuers from the Antiquities Dealers’ Association, who noted that the South Italian plate included was worth up to about $7,000 at auction, but “only if it were to have a good provenance”.

When asked by Antiques Trade Gazette how the unit had arrived at the valuation, the D.A.’s office replied: “We have experts assess the objects at the time of each repatriation based on the legal definition of value under the law.”

Who these experts are and how they arrived at such an overblown valuation remains a mystery.

This matters because:

  • What appears to be a gross exaggeration of value feeds into the inaccurate narrative of a huge international illicit trade in artefacts.
  • It also boosts the public standing of the antiquities unit, which in turn makes its unquestioned position all the more unassailable at a time when serious questions regarding its activities need to be asked.
  • The unit’s activities are funded from the public purse, so the public is entitled to accurate reporting and transparency.

If the above is an accurate assessment of the situation, it raises a raft of new questions.

One of those questions involves the second development: the D.A.’s publishing of a media release that led to inaccurate reporting on the criminal status of individuals.

Having unequivocally labelled a number of named individuals as “major antiquities traffickers” in the opening paragraph, an unheralded footnote states: “The charges referenced within are merely allegations, and the individuals are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.”

The failure to annotate the body of the release with a reference to the footnote inevitably risks misreporting, especially by those who fail to read to the end of the release. An internet search has revealed at least two examples of this happening in this case. Why is this not of serious concern to the Manhattan D.A.?

Cleveland Museum of Arts sues the D.A. over statue seizure

One of the most significant developments has come at the hands of the Cleveland Museum of Arts, which is now suing the D.A.’s office over its seizure of a headless ancient bronze statue valued at $20 million.

The D.A.’s office argues that it is of Marcus Aurelius and was looted from Turkey. The museum, which acquired the statue in 1986, says that is not the case.

As the court papers reveal, Turkey made vague and unsubstantiated claims regarding the statue around 15 years ago but did not respond when asked for evidence to support its case and did not pursue the matter further until now.

As the statue had been widely exhibited and written about over the years, Turkey had had a long time to press its case but did not do so. This was also the case when Turkey failed in its claim over the Guennol Stargazer in the New York courts. Among other comments in 2021, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan noted that Turkey had known of the piece for years and had had ample opportunity to make a claim but had failed to do so in a timely manner.

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s court papers highlight the controversial approach of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in seizing objects and returning them to source countries: “For more than ten years, the New York County (Manhattan) District Attorney has conducted numerous investigations of antiquities allegedly stolen from foreign nations, returning many of them to those nations. Proof that these items are “stolen” typically is established using the laws of such nations (“patrimony laws”), which, among other things, declare that items of a certain age or type belong to the nation. If a covered object is then illegally exported after the effective date of the patrimony law, the argument is made that it is stolen property.

“Unlike typical criminal investigations, the New York District Attorney’s primary purpose appears to be to return antiquities to their countries of origin or modern discovery, assuming the office can verify the appropriate country.”

The court papers also note that when such returns are made, the media report the returns as involving “looted antiquities” – evidence of any such looting, if it exists, is rarely made clear.

As ADA chairman Joanna van der Lande wrote to ATG in the wake of the $19 million claim: “It’s time that the media challenged official bodies, from the Manhattan D.A.’s office to UNESCO, the European Commission, Europol and others, and subject them to the same level of scrutiny that they apply to the market rather than just accepting what they put out in statements. Let’s have the same transparency and due diligence when it comes to ‘facts’ that these bodies so readily demand of dealers and auction houses in relation to objects.”