Stolen Ancient Tomb Carvings Sat in Storage at the Met Museum for Decades. Now, They’ve Been Returned to China

The objects are among 89 antiquities seized by the D.A. as part of a years-long criminal investigation into Shelby White’s collection. 

Chinese Consul General Huang Ping with an ancient stone carving seized by the Manhattan District Attorney's office and repatriated to China. Courtesy of Huang Ping via Twitter.

A pair of 7th-century stone carvings collectively valued at roughly $3.5 million have been repatriated to China, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced this week. 

The two pieces are believed to have been cut from a funerary platform in a Chinese tomb sometime during the early 1990s. They were loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998 by the prominent collector and philanthropist Shelby White, who now sits on the institution’s board of trustees.  

The objects have lived in the museum’s storage facilities for the last 25 years, and have never been publicly displayed. It’s unclear how White acquired the pieces.  

The relics were returned during a repatriation ceremony at the Chinese Consulate on Tuesday, May 9. 

“Cultural property embodies human wisdom and creativity,” with Consul General Huang Ping in a statement. “They are the link between the past and the present. They are also an important bridge connecting different countries and cultures.”  

“That is why we regard the crackdown on crimes against cultural property a sacred mission,” he added. 

The ornate stone carvings, which span multiple feet in length and weigh over 1,000 pounds, depict scenes from the Zoroastrian religion. Among the symbols etched on their surface are demons, dogs, and masked caretakers of the sacred flame.  

“It is a shame that these two incredible antiquities were stolen and at least one remained largely hidden from the public view for nearly three decades,” D.A. Bragg said. “While their total value is more than $3 million, the incredible detail and beauty of these pieces can never be truly captured by a price tag.” 

The carvings are just two of 89 antiquities from 10 different countries seized by Bragg’s office as part of a criminal investigation into White’s collection. Together, the objects are valued at nearly $69 million. 

The investigation, overseen by the chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, goes back years. In June 2021, the D.A.’s Office issued a warrant for the search of the collector’s New York home, where authorities seized five artifacts. Another search, conducted in April of 2022, yielded 18 additional objects. 

Upon wrapping the probe in February of this year, Bogdanos filed a statement with the New York State Supreme Court saying that White fully cooperated with the investigation. The DA’s office did not “[uncover] evidence to warrant charging” her with “any criminal activity in connection with the purchase and possession of the antiquities,” the document, which was countersigned by White’s lawyer, concluded.

When asked for comment by email, Bogdanos simply said, “We did what we are legally authorized—indeed mandated—to do. We conducted a criminal investigation, we seized a series of stolen antiquities (including the stunning Chinese carvings), and we repatriated them to their lawful owner, here China.” 

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