The Metropolitan Museum of Art is transferring the ownership of two ancient sculptures that have been in its collection to Yemen, officials said, nearly 40 years after they were removed from an archaeological site near the ancient city of Marib.
But the stone artifacts, which date from the third millennium B.C., will not immediately be returned to their home country because of the ongoing civil war there. Officials at the Yemeni embassy in Washington have instead asked the Met to continue to hold onto them for the time being as part of a custody agreement.
“We are delighted that Yemen is reclaiming ownership of its precious and priceless cultural heritage,” Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, the Ambassador of the Republic of Yemen to the United States, said in a statement. “Due to the current situation in Yemen, it is not the appropriate time to return these artifacts back to our homeland.”
Both artifacts were acquired by the Met in the late 1990s from the collector Jean-Luc Chalmin, the museum said. One, the sculpture of a female figure wearing a strap necklace, was a purchase; the other, a marble mortar, was a gift. The sculptures were acquired by the Met’s department of ancient near eastern art.
“These compelling objects offer an important opportunity to present Yemeni culture, in dialogue with our collection of 5,000 years of art history,” said Max Hollein, director and chief executive of the Met. “We are grateful to have established such a collegial and sincere commitment to spotlighting these important works.”
Over the last few years, 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. Some investigations have come from within cultural institutions or from amateur sleuths, while others were started by law enforcement officials.
But as more objects are being repatriated there have been concerns about the ability of some nations, particularly those at war, to care for them. 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.
“It gives me hope,” said Lamya Khalidi, an archaeologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research who spent eight years in Yemen working on restoration and conservation projects. “It is a difficult time to send back artifacts because the museums are still trying to evaluate what the extent of the damage has been after so many years of bombardment.”
Some Yemeni cultural heritage sites have received international support in recent years. In 2021, the World Monuments Fund finished the restoration of the Imam Palace, a 19th-century Ottoman building that is part of the Ta’izz Museum complex, and home to the National Museum, which had been heavily damaged by shelling.
“The museum was partially looted,” said Alessandra Peruzzetto, regional director for the monuments fund in the Middle East and North Africa. “But they were recovered before looters could sell them outside of the country. Now they are in boxes, waiting to be exhibited in the museum that we are restoring.”