Manhattan DA Bragg announces repatriation of stolen antique art to Yemen following seizure from cooperative private dealer

April 29, 2023

When not ignoring crime victims and repeat offenders, or going after a former president on the thinnest of pretexts, Democratic Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has focused at least some of his attention on an international crackdown on the alleged looting of antique art.

It was announced this week that DA Bragg's office had begun the process to repatriate three pieces of antique art to Yemen that had been seized earlier in the year from a private art collector in New York, Reuters reported.

The three pieces of art, collectively valued at more than $725,000, are believed to have been stolen from Yemen decades ago, and while they are set to eventually be returned to the country from which they originated, the pieces will be temporarily on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. until Yemeni authorities can safely repatriate them amid an ongoing civil war.

Antique artifacts previously stolen from Yemen

According to a press release from the Manhattan DA's Office, those three pieces of antique art from Yemen were seized earlier this year as part of a now-concluded criminal investigation into Shelby White, a New York-based private art collector who is also a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's board of trustees.

The first of the antiquities to be returned to Yemen is an alabaster ram bearing an inscribed base that dates to the 5th Century BCE and is believed to have been looted from an ancient necropolis near the city of Shabwa when a civil war began in 1994.

A second piece also believed to have been looted from that same site is a silver vessel with an inscription that dates to 200-300 CE, while the third piece is an alabaster figurine of a female deity that dates to the 2nd Century BCE.

White had purchased those three pieces years ago separately at different art auctions or from dealers who have since been convicted of antiquities trafficking. It is unclear if White will face any criminal charges, and she has been thanked for her cooperation with the investigation.

Manhattan's Antiquities Trafficking Unit in action

"This repatriation underscores how art and culture can serve as powerful symbols of hope," DA Bragg said in a statement. "Our investigation into the collector Shelby White has allowed dozens of antiquities that were ripped from their countries of origin to finally return home."

"These are just three of nearly 1,000 antiquities we have repatriated over the past 16 months, thanks to the talent of our investigators and prosecutors, along with our outstanding partners at [U.S. Homeland Security Investigations]," he added.

Indeed, the press release noted that Manhattan's Antiquities Trafficking Unit had seized at least 89 separate pieces of ancient art from White's Manhattan apartment that were collectively valued at more than $69 million and had originated from 10 different countries.

More broadly, the ATU under Bragg has recovered more than 800 pieces of ancient art from 24 different countries valued at more than $155 million, while overall, the ATU has recovered more than 4,500 pieces originating from 29 nations worth more than $375 million combined.

Relatedly, the antiquities unit has also repatriated more than 2,450 pieces to 24 different countries worth a collective $230 million, including 950 antiquities from 18 different countries valued at more than $160 million during Bragg's tenure in office.

Part of global crackdown on looted and stolen antique artifacts

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported in December 2022 on dozens of pieces of ancient art that had been seized from White's private collection as part of a criminal investigation that began in 2021 and is part of a broader international crackdown on looted and stolen antique artifacts.

White, along with her late husband, financier Leon Levy, had built up a massive private collection of antique art over the decades that had been purchased in good faith and on the belief that they were legitimate and not looted or stolen. As was noted in the DA's press release, White has fully cooperated with authorities throughout the investigation and has given her consent for all confiscated pieces to be repatriated to their nation of origin.

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