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The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) has deaccessioned and returned 44 works of ancient art, following an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and US Department of Homeland Security. The museum announced details of the investigation and its outcome on 5 December, detailing the institution’s cooperation throughout a six-month investigation.
The District Attorney’s investigation began in May of 2023 with a request for documentation for 28 objects in the VMFA’s collection, but grew after “photographs related to sales receipts, invoices and bills of sale; shipping and storage records; import and export documents; consignment agreements; appraisal documentation; provenance and provenance research; catalogues, brochures and marketing materials; and any correspondence” provided evidence for another 29 objects to be examined for potential ties to looting and trafficking, according to the institution. After the VMFA provided additional documentation for an additional four objects at its own request, the scope of the investigation grew to a total of 61 pieces.
After four months of research, Matthew Bogdanos of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and Homeland Security special agent Robert Mancene presented the VMFA with irrefutable evidence that 44 of the 61 artworks investigated were either stolen, looted or trafficked. Among the illegally acquired objects was a statue of an Etruscan warrior, stolen directly from its display in Bologna’s Museo Civico Archeologico in 1963. The 43 other works were traced back to international antiquities trafficking networks, which Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has made a focus of his prosecution throughout his tenure. No current employees of the museum were implicated in illegal acquisitions of the works, which mainly entered the collection between the 1970s and 90s.
“The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts returns any works in its collection that are discovered to be unlawfully held,” Alex Nyerges, the museum’s director and chief executive, said in a statement. “The museum takes seriously, and responds to, all restitution claims for works in our collection.” The museum was praised by investigators Bogdanos and Mancene as “admirably cooperative with the investigation”. The 17 remaining works that were initially examined have been cleared to stay the museum’s collection.