Three years after the seizure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York of a €3.5m golden sarcophagus, now restituted to Egypt, five more Egyptian antiques, worth more than €3m, have been confiscated from the museum by the New York District Attorney’s Office.
The seizure is the latest development in the investigation into an international trafficking ring that led to a series of indictements last week in Paris, including against the former director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez.
The DA’s office confirmed to The Art Newspaper that a warrant signed on 19 May by a Supreme Court judge has been executed. The warrant says that the five artefacts constitute evidence tending “to demonstrate the crimes of criminal possession of stolen property“ and “conspiracy to commit the same crimes“.
Four of these pieces were listed by The Art Newspaper as coming from Roben Dib, the German-Lebanese dealer suspected to be the key figure in the trafficking ring. He is now detained in Paris and denies any wrongdoing.
The Met has been questioned multiple times since 2019 about the fate of these items, and if it would consider their return to Egypt; the museum has always declined to answer. But, after this week’s seizure, a spokesperson reaffirmed “its employees were deceived by this criminal conspiracy and the museum has been fully cooperative throughout this investigation and will continue to be so“.
Two of these objects are exceptional. A Fayum portrait of a lady in a blue coat, dating from Nero’s reign, was considered the jewel of the funerary Egyptian portraits’ collection of the museum. And five fragments of a wall hanging illustrating the Book of Exodus painted on linen, from the 4th or 5th century, constitute one of the oldest representations of the crossing of the Red Sea. Fewer than 10 similar antique decoration fragments are registered in museums like the Met or the Louvre.
Both items were sold through Pierre Bergé auction house in Paris, where one of the investigation’s main suspects, Christophe Kunicki, was working as expert. In the catalogues of these antiquities, Kunicki gave “a European collection“ as sole provenance. The investigators believe it to be the Simonian collection, coming from three brothers of Armenian descent, Simon, Hagop and Serop Simonian, for whom Roben Dib was working. In his report in 2019 on the golden sarcophagus purchased directly by the Met from Kunicki, the chief of the Antiquities trafficking unit of the DA’s office, Matthew Bogdanos, had already pointed out serious flaws in the provenance research by the Egyptian department of the Met.
Between 2013 and 2015, along with the Fayum portrait (worth €1.5m) and the fragments from the Book of Exodus (worth €1.3m), the Met also bought a limestone stele in the model of a chapel dedicated to Kemes, patron of the musicians, from the 13th Dynasty (around 1770 BC), for €250,000, and a 26th dynasty (around 650 BC) stele representing a singer in front of an offerings table with offerings to the god Hathor for €80,000.
The DA’s office did not comment on the motives for its action, but, according to documents seen in Paris by The Art Newspaper, all these pieces were put on sale by Dib, in one case under the name of his mother. They were seized at the museum along a sarcophagus mask, valued by the DA’s office at $6,500 (€6,000), which was sold by a Dutch company acting on behalf of Dib, according to a source close to the investigation.
The paintings of the exodus and the Fayum portrait were by far the most valuable pieces on a list of 29 Eastern archeological pieces, sold between 2007 and 2019 and investigated in Paris by the Office against Art Trafficking (OCBC). Fourteen were put on sale by Dib, in four cases under the name of his mother or his sister. One of them was a stele, from the Simonian’s collection, representing a high priest in front of an offering table, which was seized in New York on its way to The European Fine Art and Antiques Fair (Tefaf) and returned to Egypt in 2020.
A French officer from the OCBC has arrived in New York to hear evidence from several witnesses, including representatives of the Metropolitan, and exchange information with Bogdanos, who initiated the trafficking investigation in 2013.