The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) announced on Dec. 5 that the museum 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. VMFA 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 4 works, added at the museum’s request, bringing the total number of works under investigation to 61.
On October 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. These 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. The museum takes seriously, and responds to, all restitution claims for works in our collection,” said VMFA’s Director and CEO Alex Nyerges. “This is not just our policy. It is the right thing to do. We fully support the decision to repatriate these 44 works of ancient art.”
“The clear and compelling evidence presented to VMFA left no doubt that the museum does not hold clear title for these 44 works of ancient art,” said VMFA’s Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education Michael R. Taylor. “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.”
From the outset, VMFA worked in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security and the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The museum was praised by Col. Bogdanos and special agent Mancene for having been “admirably cooperative with the investigation” and no evidence was uncovered that linked current employees with any criminal activity related VMFA’s acquisition of these antiquities, which occurred for the most part in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. The museum was also informed that the other 17 works of ancient art are no longer under investigation and can remain in the museum’s permanent collection.
VMFA adheres to the guidelines and standards set by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the American Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) regarding the provenance of works of ancient art. To ensure transparency and accountability, the museum has posted 91 new acquisitions of works of ancient art on the AAMD Object Registry since it was established on June 4, 2008, for works lacking in complete provenance before November 1970, the date of the UNESCO convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Since 2004, the museum has repatriated six other works of art — three European paintings that were stolen during the Nazi era and three works that were returned to the Tlingit tribe in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). For more information about VMFA’s provenance research practices and policies, visit www.vmfa.museum.