Smithsonian to house stolen Yemen artifacts until they can be returned


In January, the State Department and the Yemeni Embassy approached the National Museum of Asian Art with an unusual query: Would the Smithsonian museum be able to house 77 cultural objects that the United States had retrieved during smuggling attempts?

Chase Robinson, director of the Asian art museum’s Freer and Sackler galleries, didn’t need long to respond.

“Our conservators and our curators have been active in this space for a long time,” Robinson said. “We very quickly realized that this is something that we not only felt compelled to do, but in some sense privileged to do.”

The National Museum of Asian Art on Tuesday announced a partnership with the Yemeni government to house the artifacts being repatriated to the war-afflicted Middle Eastern nation on a two-year custodial agreement, with the option to renew at the Yemeni government’s request.

“We are thrilled to see Yemen retaking ownership of its cultural heritage,” Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, the Yemeni ambassador to the United States, said in a statement. “With the current situation in Yemen, it is not the right time to bring the objects back into the country. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is a global leader in the field of cultural heritage and preservation. We are pleased to see these objects in their care.”

The partnership was formed in the wake of a new Smithsonian policy adopted in April authorizing its museums to allow shared ownership of items or to return artifacts for ethical reasons. The policy, which was approved a year after the Smithsonian set out to review its practices, represented the first significant revision to the institution’s collections management since 2001.

“This is an example of the many forms the shared stewardship can take,” Robinson said. “We’re delighted to see the Smithsonian moving in this direction, and we’re delighted to play a role in innovating in one of the ways in which it can manifest itself.”

The agreement comes eight years into the war in Yemen, which began when the Houthis, a militant group from northern Yemen, seized control of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. The war has settled into a stalemate between the Houthis and a Saudi Arabia-backed coalition, which entered the conflict on the side of Yemen’s deposed government in 2015. The ongoing conflict has left Yemen’s nearly 30 million residents facing a multifaceted humanitarian crisis fueled by military attacks, hunger, disease and poverty.

In November, Yemen’s Al-Hudhud Center for Archaeological Studies published a report claiming that more than 4,000 Yemeni artifacts had been stolen and sold abroad. Last month, the landmarks of the ancient kingdom of Saba in Yemen were added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites at risk. The International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas recently launched a call for projects focused on the protection of Yemen’s cultural heritage.

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Robinson acknowledged that the repatriation is, in the context of Yemen’s larger crisis, “a very modest step on its own” but said it is “symbolically potent.”

“It’s a heart-wrenchingly difficult enterprise to try to protect the archaeological sites and the artifacts,” said Michael Harrower, an associate professor of archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, whose experience includes a decade of field work in Yemen. “Artifacts and archaeological sites are nonrenewable resources that we want to protect and preserve, not only for the Yemeni people but also for them to develop a tourism sector going forward.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Justice Department seized the items after they were illegally transported into the United States. Sixty-five of the artifacts are funerary stelae — stone slabs featuring carved heads — traced to the second half of the first millennium B.C. in northwest Yemen. All but one of the stelae were forfeited to the United States in connection with a civil forfeiture action filed in the Eastern District of New York, related to the April 2012 guilty plea of antiquities smuggler Mousa Khouli, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Claire Kedeshian.

The others artifacts are a bronze bowl, believed to be from the third century, and 11 folios from an eighth-century Quran. Some folios were discovered by Customs and Border Protection officers at Philadelphia International Airport, according to Steve K. Francis, the acting executive associate director for Homeland Security Investigations, who said other folios were later seized from an online sale during an undercover operation.

The Asian art museum plans to display some of the items and call attention to the war in Yemen and the challenges posed by smuggling in the accompanying text. Some artifacts may be featured in the Sackler exhibition “Ancient Yemen: Incense, Art, and Trade,” though Robinson said such decisions could take several months, acknowledging that the museum will be judicious about which objects are put on view.

“This is an area in which we’re thinking about how we design exhibitions and educate the public in such a way that they appreciate not only the past — in this case, ancient Yemen — but also how precarious the past is,” Robinson said. “We’re going to be quite careful in how we frame these objects.”

The partnership between the Yemeni government and the Smithsonian comes as the National Museum of Asian Art is receiving funding from the Carnegie Corporation to explore establishing an international consortium dedicated to protecting artifacts and museum staff in Asia and the Middle East that are threatened by humanitarian crises.

The museum formally took custody of the 77 objects during a repatriation ceremony Tuesday hosted by the Yemen Embassy at the ambassador’s residence in Northwest Washington, during which agents and officials involved in the artifacts’ retrieval were honored. The repatriation marked the first time the United States had returned cultural property to Yemen since 2004, when one funerary stele was transferred to the Yemeni Embassy.

“Yemen is not one of the places that pops into the public’s imagination when you think archaeology,” said Harrower, the Johns Hopkins associate professor. “But Yemen has a really tremendous and important archaeological history … and it takes institutions like the Smithsonian to be a venue to display, preserve, educate people about these histories.”

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