The Met Transfers Ownership of Two Ancient Stone Sculptures From 3,000 BCE Back to Yemen

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is transferring ownership of two stone sculptures dating to the third millennium BCE back to Yemen, but the items will remain on loan to the museum.

The institution recently announced the shift in ownership of the marble rectangular mortar and a standing female figure after provenance research by its scholars established their point of origin. In May, the museum announced it had hired a four-person team specifically dedicated to researching items in its collection with gaps in ownership records.

According to a press release, the museum purchased a sandstone standing female figure wearing a strap and a necklace in 1999, and was gifted a rectangular marble mortar in 1999. Scholars from the Met established both items were found near the Yemen city of Ma’rib in 1984 and belonged to the Republic of Yemen.

“Due to the current situation in Yemen, it is not the appropriate time to return these artifacts back to our homeland,” Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, the ambassador of the Republic of Yemen to the United States, said in a press statement.

Under a custodial agreement, the museum will care for and display the two stone artifacts until Yemen wishes for their return. This arrangement is similar to the ones Yemen signed with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art earlier this year, which served as a guiding example, as well as the arrangement with the Victoria & Albert in London for four ancient carved funerary stones.

Ambassador Mohammed Al-Hadhrami and U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking are expected to attend a ceremony with the Met’s director and CEO Max Hollein on Friday to sign the custodial agreement.

Hollein said the partnership between the museum and the Republic of Yemen was “historic.” “These compelling objects offer an important opportunity to present Yemeni culture—in dialogue with our collection of 5,000 years of art history—to The Met’s audiences,” he wrote in a press statement. “We are grateful to have established such a collegial and sincere commitment to spotlighting these important works and look forward to working with the large Yemeni-American community in New York City to host a celebration of our new collaboration later this fall.”

The move also follows an extended period of increased scrutiny on the museum’s collection, and multiple seizures by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, resulting in repatriations to countries like Nepal, Greece, Italy, Egypt, and Nigeria. Other incidents include claims from Indigenous communities that an ancient Mayan throne was illegally exported for an exhibit, as well as an investigation that found more than 1,000 items were linked to antiquities trafficking.