Stolen art and antiquities have been a core part of the New York art world literally as long as the city has existed. That’s coming to light, day by day.
Not all art theft is Mission Impossible-style heists or burglaries in the night. Most of it is simply improperly removed art from the undeveloped world, cultural treasures taken or bought from the starving or unaware by the wealthy and unscrupulous.
“We’re in a moment where owning antiquities taken from the country of origin is much less acceptable than it was just 15 years ago,” says Ben Lewis, host of a podcast about art world scandals. Repatriation is a daily topic of conversation in auction houses, museums, and galleries around the developed world.
“It’s good that there’s lots of exchanges between cultures,” Lewis adds, defending legal sales of antiquities. “You wouldn’t have art history unless people from one country saw art from another. That’s one of the great ways that art progresses. But that doesn’t mean it should be stolen — which a lot of stuff is.”
A recent example is the Coffin of Nedjemankh, a gilded Egyptian coffin from approximately 100 BCE that once held the remains of a priest. The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought it for $4 million from a Paris-based art collector who provided them with a 1971 export license for the artifact. But in 2019, the Egyptian Government provided proof that the license has been forged after the coffin was stolen in 2011. The Met immediately shuttered their exhibition based around the coffin and its former occupant, and returned the piece to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.
The matter of stolen art is so large in New York that there is a Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, current led by Matthew Bogdanos, a legend in the world of art investigation. Bogdanos has already brought down several large scale art traffickers, including Nancy Wiener and Subhash Kapoor.
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