In an ongoing effort of repatriation, the District Attorney’s office of Manhattan has returned 58 artifacts to Italy — 21 of which were taken from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Frehse, CNN, 2022).
The DA’s investigation of antiquities trafficking networks has repatriated around 2,000 artifacts in the past two years. Spokesperson, Attorney Alvin Bragg, revealed that the 58 items were trafficked by a group of four individuals and landed in the possession of avid collector Michael Steinhardt. Michael Steinhardt is a Jewish philanthropist, fund manager and author. Though, this is not the first time billionaire Steinhardt has had artifacts seized from his collection. In fact, DA officials returned “nearly $14 million dollars worth” of antiquities to Italy in July of this year — dozens of pieces belonging to Steinhardt (Valle et al., CNN, 2022). Since this second offense, a lifetime ban has been placed on Steinhardt preventing him from collecting any more artifacts. Steinhardt has also resigned from NYU’s board of trustees.
Why Repatriation is Important for the Sake of Art History
The integrity of certain art is crucial to where it originates from. When artifacts are stolen or looted not only is it morally wrong, but it also strips away the cultural richness that is necessary to its story. Museums with stolen art also indirectly further perpetuate western colonization and oppression. Cultural art and antiquities belong together because of their significance to history, contemporary identity and political identity.
Most stolen artifacts hold historical roots, literally and symbolically. Repatriation honors these roots. When artifacts are repatriated, we are able to understand the art — specifically non-western pieces — on their own terms, in the way they were intended to be seen and appreciated.
Repatriation efforts, such as the ceremonies being completed by the District Attorney’s office, are important to repairing relations with other countries and preserving the cultural value of the art itself.