Home Architect ProPublica investigation of Met’s Native American art collection reveals provenance issues

ProPublica investigation of Met’s Native American art collection reveals provenance issues

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A deepening investigation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collecting practices related to its collection of Native American art revealed a lax attention to provenance on the part of the New York institution. Conducted by non-profit newsroom ProPublica, the study found that a number of artifacts in the museum’s collection had incomplete or insufficient ownership histories and could therefore be stolen or counterfeited. At the heart of the investigation were 139 objects loaned or donated to the museum by collectors Charles and Valerie Diker, owners of one of the world’s most remarkable Native American art treasures.

ProPublica found that only 15% of these works had complete or traceable provenances. A number had no ownership history, while others had gaps ranging from two centuries to two millennia in their respective provenances; the owners of still other works were referred to by terms as nebulous as “English gentleman” or “family in Scotland”. Additionally, the researchers found that the Met had taken advantage of a loophole in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), which requires institutions to, within six months of receiving a Native American antiquity, contact a representative of the appropriate tribe, thereby allowing said tribe the opportunity to retrieve its artifact. NAGPRA further requires museums to notify the National Park Service that they have done so. According to ProPublica, the Met used the fact that many works were on loan to avoid informing the relevant tribal authorities and dragged its feet for years on what artifacts it actually owned.

“While progress has been made in updating the online catalog information and providing more complete provenance information, we recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done and that it is ‘an ongoing process that requires relationship building, patience and great care,’ the museum said in a statement. “This is important work, and it is precisely one of the Dikers’ intentions to have a large, well-resourced institution like the Met devoting time and scholarship to these Indigenous items.”

The Dikers released a statement saying: “Our collecting practice for over 50 years has always focused on caution, evaluating all available provenance information before acquiring a work, and welcoming new information should it come to light.”

“It’s horrible how so many of these things ended up in museums,” Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage and a Tlingit citizen, told ProPublica. “The legitimate thing is for these things to be sent home.”


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