Looted relics worth US$3.5 million on loan to New York’s Met museum returned to China


May 12, 2023

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Heritage | History

Stone carvings valued at more than US$3 million handed back after investigation into private art collection

The artefacts were ripped from a seventh century tomb


Article by Cyril Ip | South China Morning Post

Two stone carvings were presented to the Chinese consulate in New York, after an investigation found they were stolen from a tomb in the 1990s and smuggled out of China. Photo: Twitter/@CGHuangPingNY

New York authorities have returned looted antiquities worth US$3.5 million to China, following a criminal investigation into an American collector.

The items, two stone-carved tomb beds, were among 89 antiquities seized from the collection of 85-year-old Shelby White, a board member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, best known for its annual fashion fundraiser the Met Gala.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said the relics had been on loan to the museum since 1998, with one bed on display and the other “largely hidden from public view” in the storage area.

The artefacts, weighing more than 453kg (1,000lbs), were presented to the Chinese consulate in New York in a repatriation ceremony on Tuesday, attended by district attorney Alvin Bragg and consul general Huang Ping.

They will be transferred to China’s cultural heritage administration, which manages museums and protects cultural relics.

“While their total value is more than US$3 million, the incredible detail and beauty of these pieces can never be truly captured by a price tag,” said Bragg, adding that it was a “shame” they were stolen.

Huang said: “We regard the crackdown on crimes against cultural property a sacred mission.”

An investigation by Manhattan’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU) found the items were looted and smuggled out of China in the early 1990s. Thieves used saws to cut the carvings from a funerary platform dating back to the seventh century.

They were later sold to White, who had 89 of her antiquities – sourced from 10 countries and collectively valued at nearly US$69 million – seized during the operation.

The stone carvings depict themes from the Zoroastrian religion, which include good demons killing devils in hell, dogs that purify the body, and masked caretakers of the sacred flame, dressed in feathered cloaks with bird feet.


The stone carvings depict themes from the Zoroastrian religion. Photo: Twitter/@CGHuangPingNY

Since its creation, the ATU has returned more than 2,450 antiquities, valued at more than US$230 million, to 24 countries. China has received a total of 404 sets of cultural relics and artworks and one paleontological fossil in five operations since 2015.

In an emblematic case of art trafficking in New York, billionaire Michael Steinhardt in 2021 relinquished around 180 stolen antiquities worth US$70 million, in exchange for the dismissal of a grand jury investigation into his collection. He has since been permanently banned from acquiring new pieces.

During the Bragg administration, more than 950 antiquities worth over US$165 million have been returned to 19 countries, including Cambodia, Egypt, Greece, India and Iraq, since January 2022.