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Ownership of Ancient Yemeni Artifacts Transferred by the Metropolitan Museum

By Kasturi Chakraborty
Ownership of Ancient Yemeni Artifacts Transferred by the Metropolitan Museum
Investigations led by scholars from the Metropolitan Museum established that the artifacts were found near Marib in 1984 and rightfully belonged to the Republic of Yemen.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has transferred the ownership of two antiquities to Yemen, despite the ongoing conflict in the country. However, in consideration of safety, the artifacts will remain in New York. The pair of ancient pieces, a sandstone female figure and a marble mortar, date from the third millennium BCE and were discovered in modern-day Yemen. The museum gained possession of the statue in 1998 from collector Jean-Luc Chalmin, who also donated the mortar in 1999.

Provenance Research Leads to Ownership Transfer

Investigations led by scholars from the Metropolitan Museum established that the artifacts were found near Marib in 1984 and rightfully belonged to the Republic of Yemen. Over the recent years, prestigious museums worldwide, including the Met, have committed to collaborate with investigators in identifying looted or stolen art. Since 2017, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has led such a campaign, resulting in the return of over 950 artifacts valued at $165 million to 19 countries.

Intention to Return Stolen Artifacts

In May, the Met announced plans to examine the provenance of several hundred objects that might have been stolen from their countries of origin, with the intention of returning them. Similarly, in February, US authorities announced the return of 77 antiquities to Yemen, which will also remain in the US, safeguarded at the Smithsonian in Washington.

Agreement Welcomed, Physical Return Postponed

The Met’s agreement with Yemen’s government has been acclaimed by the nation’s ambassador to the US, Mohammed Al-Hadhrami. However, he stated that due to the ongoing civil war in Yemen, which has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, this is not the right time to physically return the artifacts.

Repatriation Efforts and Future Concerns

The rising repatriation efforts have forced museum officials to scrutinize how their predecessors acquired objects, in some cases without regard for cultural heritage laws and local customs that might have prevented them from leaving their home countries. However, as more objects are being repatriated, concerns have emerged about the ability of some nations, particularly those at war, to care for them. Nevertheless, the efforts to continue safeguarding Yemeni artifacts at the Met and the Smithsonian while officially handing ownership over to the government have been celebrated by some archaeologists and historians.

Preserving Heritage Amid Conflict

Yemen has been devastated by an eight-year civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and plunged the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula into one of the world’s worst humanitarian tragedies. Despite this, the commitment to preserve and respect the country’s cultural heritage continues, exemplified through the efforts of institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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