RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia’s state-run fine arts museum has begun the process of returning 44 pieces of ancient art to their countries of origin after law enforcement officials presented the institution with what it called “irrefutable evidence” that the works had been stolen or looted.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts announced in a news release Tuesday that it had “safely delivered” the pieces to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York, which it said had conducted an inquiry into the artworks as part of a broader investigation, along with the Department of Homeland Security. The DA’s office will facilitate the return of the objects to Italy, Egypt and Turkey, according to the Richmond museum.
“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,” Michael R. Taylor, the museum’s chief curator and deputy director for art and education, said in a statement. “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.”
Among the returned works was a bronze Etruscan warrior that the museum said was stolen from an archaeological museum in Bologna, Italy, in 1963.
The other 43 works were looted as part of an international criminal conspiracy that is currently under investigation involving antiquities traffickers, smugglers and art dealers, according to the news release.
Jan Hatchette, a spokesperson for the museum, said by email Wednesday morning that she was not permitted to answer questions from The Associated Press that pertained to the investigation.
Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the DA’s antiquities trafficking unit, did not immediately respond to an emailed inquiry from the AP.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office has worked in recent years to repatriate hundreds of objects it has said were looted from countries including Turkey, Greece, Israel and Italy.
The VMFA said that in May, it received a summons from DHS and the DA’s office regarding 28 ancient art objects in its collection. The agencies asked the museum for documentation related to the pieces, ranging from invoices and bills of sale to import and export documents and provenance research.
The VMFA complied, and authorities then added another 29 works to the summons list in June, according to the news release.
The museum said it also submitted information of its own volition about four additional works, bringing the total number under investigation to 61.
In October, museum officials met with Bogdanos and the special agent handling the investigation from Homeland Security, the news release said. The two officials provided the museum then with “irrefutable evidence” 44 works had been stolen or looted.
The museum has since been told the other 17 works are no longer under investigation and can remain in the institution’s collection.
According to the VMFA, no evidence linked “current employees with any criminal activity” related to its acquisition of the pieces, which mostly occurred in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.
Whether any former employees have been implicated was among the questions Hatchette said she could not address.
Separately on Tuesday, the DA’s office announced the return of 41 pieces valued at more than $8 million to Turkey. The news release made no mention of the office’s efforts in connection with the Virginia museum.
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