V&A to Temporarily Care for Looted Yemeni Funerary Stones in Historic Agreement
The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London will undertake the care, research, and conservation of four ancient carved funerary stones, known as stelae, which were recently discovered in an east London shop by the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiques unit. These stelae, dating back to the second half of the first millennium BC, originate from necropoli that have fallen victim to looting in recent years. The V&A will safeguard these precious artifacts until it is deemed safe to return them to Yemen. During this period, the stelae will be displayed to the public as part of an exhibition on “Culture in Crisis” at the V&A East Storehouse, commencing in 2025.
Preservation of Yemeni Heritage
The four stelae in question represent invaluable relics of Yemen’s ancient culture and history. As artifacts that have faced the threat of looting and illegal trafficking, their preservation and eventual return to their rightful place in Yemen is of paramount importance.
The stelae’s journey to preservation began when an archaeology enthusiast stumbled upon them in an interior design shop in east London. Recognizing their historical significance, the enthusiast reported the discovery to the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiques unit, which specializes in investigating art theft, illegal trafficking, and fraud. The unit’s efforts led to the recovery of these ancient artifacts.
What sets this agreement apart from many others in the realm of cultural heritage preservation is its unique nature. Typically, objects are temporarily stored by museums before being repatriated to their country of origin. However, this agreement allows for extended research, conservation, and public display of the stelae before their eventual return to Yemen. This approach promotes a deeper understanding and appreciation of these artifacts.
Cultural Heritage Repatriation
The V&A’s agreement with Yemen adds to the growing global dialogue about the repatriation of cultural artifacts to their countries of origin. This issue has garnered significant attention, with notable cases including the calls for the return of the Parthenon marbles and Benin bronzes held by the British Museum.
The stelae themselves are described as “incredible” by Tristram Hunt, the V&A’s director. These ancient carvings offer a glimpse into Yemeni culture and creativity during a pivotal period in history. Their public display at the V&A East Storehouse from 2025 will provide an opportunity for the public to appreciate their historical and artistic value.
A Message of Legal Consideration
Cdr Stephen Clayman of the Metropolitan Police emphasized the importance of considering the legal perspective when acquiring antiquities. By verifying an artifact’s provenance before purchase, individuals can help combat the demand for stolen cultural goods and contribute to the preservation of cultural heritage.
UK’s deputy ambassador to Yemen, Charles Harper, highlighted the role of arts and culture in rebuilding societies affected by conflict. Notably, the stelae are classified as objects at risk on the International Council of Museums’ emergency red list of cultural objects.
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