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A longtime trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has had nearly $70 million in looted artifacts seized in the past two years, though investigators haven’t suggested she, or her late husband, knowingly acquired them with that information.
Shelby White, an 84-year-old emeritus trustee of the Met, has had 71 looted artifacts seized from her Manhattan apartment over the past two years. An additional 17 artifacts she loaned to the museum have also been seized under the suspicion of them being stolen, according to a report from The New York Times.
“The Met has been very public in acknowledging that new information brought to light by law enforcement and others has precipitated our decision to devote additional resources to provenance research,” Met spokesman Ken Weine told the NYT.
The investigation was being conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, which has reportedly seized 89 items in total from Shelby White’s collection. One of the looted items is a bronze statuette of Roman emperor Lucius Verus — one of the most expensive artifacts in the collection at $15 million — which belongs to Turkey, according to the New York Post.
Another item was a seventh-century Chinese funerary artifact that was still filled with dirt, a sign that it had previously been looted; it has since been returned to China. Additional artifacts include a mixing bowl and an amphora from the sixth century B.C., among many others.
Matthew Bogdanos, head of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, described White’s apartment as “literally a museum.”
Despite many of White’s purchased artifacts being seized on suspicion of looting, it appears the Met is not trying to distance itself from the collector. White and her late husband, investor Leon Levy, had donated roughly $20 million to the organization. In 2007, after Levy passed away, the Met unveiled the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, which the Times describes as the “centerpiece of the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries.”
Additionally, White is a member of numerous committees at the museum, including buildings, finance, and even acquisitions. According to the Times, she was recently placed on a task force focusing on issues relating to cultural property and practices for collection. She served as a trustee for 33 years, but now as emeritus trustee does not have voting power, offering advice instead.
While investigators have not suggested White purposefully purchased the artifacts knowing they were stolen, some experts have expressed doubts.
“There is no way that someone at her level of the market and her depth of collecting and her prominence at the Met, there is no way someone at that level did not know they should be asking for things like export licenses,” Colgate University director of museum studies Elizabeth Marlowe told the Times.
Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul University, said, “Her collecting practices do not fit the model of how a museum should be pursuing knowledge and preserving the historical record.”
However, White’s lawyer Peter A Chavkin says that any items in her collection deemed looted have been promptly and “voluntarily returned” to its “rightful place of origin.” He also says White and Levy purchased all the antiquities in “good faith” from “reputable” dealers.
Additionally, the Met appears to have defended her from attacks, with Met director Max Hollein saying she is a “profoundly generous supporter” who has had an “enormous impact at this museum and many other institutions.”
Since the 1970s, White and Levy have purchased over 700 artifacts from around the world, and “dozens” are still included in the museum’s collection, according to the Times. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office says it has concluded the investigation into White’s collection, but that it will reexamine if new evidence comes forward.