NEW YORK: From an ancient Middle Eastern limestone elephant to seventh century Chinese sculptures, New York prosecutors have seized hundreds of priceless artefacts looted from around the globe that have earned it the reputation as a key global hub for art trafficking.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is among major institutions and collectors who have been forced to hand over works that the city has returned to more than a dozen countries in Asia, Europe and Africa.

The scale of the seizures and repatriations “leaves no shadow of a doubt,” said Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist and art historian specializing in stolen art works.

“New York is one of the world’s hub cities for the illicit trafficking of antiquities,” he said.

Tsirogiannis of the University of Aarhus in Denmark, and David Gill, a professor at Britain’s Kent Law School, have been helping the Manhattan district attorney’s campaign to return stolen art to their country of origin.

Since 2017, prosecutors have repatriated pieces that were looted from around 20 countries between the 1970s and 1990s.

They have included works from ancient Greece, the Roman and Byzantine empires, Iraq, China, India and Southeast Asia.

The pace has quickened in the last two years.

Under Alvin Bragg, who became district attorney in January 2022, more than 950 pieces worth $165 million have been returned to several countries including Cambodia, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkiye and Italy.

At a ceremony at the Chinese consulate in New York last month, Bragg handed back to Beijing two 7th century stone sculptures valued at $3.5 million.

The works had been sawn from tombs in the 1990s, exported and then sold illegally. Well-known Manhattan-based collector Shelby White loaned them to the Met from 1998 until their seizure this year, Bragg’s office said.

White, 85, is a billionaire philanthropist and Met trustee. Her home was subject to searches by Bragg’s team in June 2021 and April 2022.

Bragg announced last that month 89 works with a total value of $69 million had been seized from White, who prosecutors do not accuse of wrongdoing. He thanked her “for her cooperation.” Art Newspaper reported in December that White had returned pieces to Italy and Turkiye, with the businesswoman telling the website: “I really don’t have anything to say.”

Tsirogiannis and Gill believe that White’s acquisitions made with her late husband Leon Levy “may have been unwise,” especially those amassed after the 1970 Unesco Convention to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2023

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