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A kidnapped goddess returns home, after prosecutors expose art thieves

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than 70 stolen artifacts, some more than 2,000 years old, returned home to Italy and Egypt this week. They include a mummy portrait, a marble head depicting the goddess Athena and an intricately painted drinking cup. The Manhattan district attorney sees these objects as part of a string of search warrants targeting private collectors and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Erin Thompson has been tracking these investigations. She's a professor of art crime at the City University of New York and joins us now. Welcome.

ERIN THOMPSON: Lovely to be here.

CHANG: Lovely to have you. OK. Let me just ask you - some of these objects - I mean, they were purchased decades ago. So what took so long to determine that they were stolen?

THOMPSON: Well, it didn't take so long to determine they were stolen. It took a while for the Metropolitan Museum to admit that, I think.

CHANG: Ah.

THOMPSON: A few decades ago Italian authorities busted a antiquities smuggler who had a huge smuggling ring. And the thing is he kept really good records, which is not such a great idea if you're a worldwide criminal.

CHANG: Right.

THOMPSON: And - including photographs of all of the antiquities that had passed through his hands that had been dug up from tombs smuggled out of Italy and then ended up in the hands of private collectors in museums around the world. So there are so many of these antiquities, it's taken a while for Italian authorities to match the photographs to objects in museums, and that is what happened here.

CHANG: Well, in the Met's defense, a museum spokesperson told us in a statement that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been fully supportive of the Manhattan DA's investigations. Is it your view that the Met should have done more?

THOMPSON: No, I think the Met was fully cooperative, although I'm not sure how much you can pat yourself on the back for doing something you're legally obligated to do. But what I think needs to happen is that - right now the museums are just waiting for the authorities to approach them and say there's a problem with this particular item. But the museums have all of this information about items in their collection. Why aren't they the ones digging into that information and saying, oh, there's other red flags that should be attended to? We're not just going to wait for authorities.

CHANG: Well, what would the incentive be for them to do that? I mean, if prosecutors had never gotten involved in these specific cases, is there any real incentive for museums to independently investigate the patronage of objects that are currently in their collection?

THOMPSON: Sadly, no. And that's why I think public attention is so important. Right now museums get to have this good reputation as some place that's preserving art without any question. And it's only when we, as the public, ask, hey; how exactly did you get those things, that they start to think, we better reconsider our ethics.

CHANG: Well, not to justify theft, but, you know, we have heard arguments from museums in the past that, even if certain objects were stolen in their collections, museums could at least preserve those objects for public appreciation and academic study. What do you say to that argument?

THOMPSON: I have two small kids, and when my youngest steals a cookie from her older brother and runs around the house as he's chasing her, shouting, I sharing, I sharing...

CHANG: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...That argument doesn't fly. It's good to share heritage, but you can't justify violent theft by saying, well, now I'm sharing. It's great to share if everybody agrees. And I hope that's what we'll see in museums in the future.

CHANG: But to go a step further, how would you ethically source a collection, one that still manages to educate and enrich the public's cultural understanding?

THOMPSON: Well, say you wanted to go to a museum to learn about the culture of Nepal. Right now most Western collections have sacred artworks that were stolen from active worship in shrines and monasteries in Nepal. That seems kind of unethical, creepy, not great. What if instead those galleries were filled with contemporary art, art made by people who are continuing these traditions of sculpture and woodcarving, videos of historical artwork installed in shrines? So it looks like more contemporary art. It looks like more negotiations. It doesn't look like buying something from an auction or a dealer with absolutely no idea of how it got out of its country of origin.

CHANG: Erin Thompson, professor of art crime at the City University of New York. Thank you very much.

THOMPSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.

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