6 Stolen Artworks the Met Museum Had To Return to their Rightful Owners

Sometimes, the provenance of artworks hanging in museums is questionable. Here are some examples of stolen artworks in the Met Museum in New York that were returned to their owners.

Dec 19, 2020By Zoe Mann, BA Art History
nedjemankh coffin euphronios krater
Nedjemankh’s Golden Coffin; with The Rape of Tamar by Eustache Le Sueur, 1640; and the Euphronios Krater, 6th Century B.C.


Over the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s 150-year history, there has been stolen art in their collection, forcing the renowned museum to take

action. This has been an issue with numerous museums that have been accused of looting or stealing artifacts or art pieces. These pieces had to be returned to their rightful owners and provenances. Find out if you recognize any of these stolen artworks from the Met Museum!


Provenance Issues And The Met Museum

rape of Tamar met museum
The Rape of Tamar by Eustache Le Sueur, 1640, photographed by Karsten Moran, via New York Times


First, let’s review what provenance means. Provenance details the origin of a piece of art. Think of it as a timeline detailing all the owners who owned the work since its original creation. Creating these timelines can sometimes be easy, but most of the time, it’s putting together a puzzle that is missing half of its pieces. Large institutions like the Met have long, intense processes for investigating an artwork’s origins. Due to this difficulty, art institutions sometimes get a provenance wrong. It makes one wonder how many other artworks on the Met Museum’s walls aren’t legally supposed to be hanging?


1. The Golden Sarcophagus Of Nedjemankh 

nedjemankh golden coffin met museum
Nedjemankh’s Golden Coffin, via New York Times


In 2019, The Met Museum held an exhibition titled “Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin.” The show highlighted artifacts from Nedjemankh, a priest of Heryshef during the 1st Century B.C. The exhibit included headdresses the priest would wear during ceremonies and amulets created for the god Horus. However, the main attraction was Nedjemankh’s golden coffin inscribed with texts to protect Nedjemankh’s journey into the afterlife. The Met paid 3.95 million dollars for the coffin back in 2017. When it became the highlight of an exhibition in 2019, officials in Egypt raised the alarm. The coffin looked similar to a stolen coffin missing since 2011.  


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As for the coffin itself, the coffin’s gold symbolizes the priest’s divine body and his connection with the Gods. Gold also represented the eyes of Heryshef, who was the God Nedjemankh worshipped and whom he dedicated his career. 


Nedjemankh’s Golden Coffin, via New York Times
Nedjemankh’s Golden Coffin, via New York Times


Carved into the golden lid is the priest’s face, his eyes and eyebrows painted blue. The Egyptians had a long process for preparing a body for the afterlife. They believed that the soul needed supplies and assistance as they traveled to the afterlife. Egyptians would build elaborate pyramids full of items, servants, and pets important to the dead. Chambers housed the coffins. Traps, riddles, and curses would protect the casket from looters. There was an archeological boom in the Renaissance, and in the 1920s, where rumors of dangerous curses caused by the opening of these chambers and caskets ran amuck. Nedjemankh’s coffin is in an excellent state, and it’s a relief that finally returning home.


2. 16th-Century Silver Cup 

16th Century Silver Cup, met museum
16th Century Silver Cup, via Artnet 


Around the same time that the Met Museum realized the stolen Nedjemankh Coffin, it found another stolen art piece in its collection. A 16th-century German silver cup was stolen from the Gutmann family by Nazis during World War II.


The 3 1/2-inch-tall cup is made of silver and produced in Munich sometime in the 16th century. The patriarch, Eugen Gutmann, inherited the cup. Eugen was a German-Jewish Banker in the Netherlands. When Eugen passed, his son, Fritz Gutmann, took possession of the artifacts before being captured by the Nazis and murdered in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Nazi art dealer Karl Haberstock stole the cup from the Guttman family. It’s unclear how the Met acquired the object, but it first appeared in their collection in 1974.


Ever since World War II, Jewish families fled Europe or had members who perished in the concentration camps. Paintings once belonging to these families have been turning up in museums and private collections. Task forces have made it their goal to find all the missing artworks once owned by Jewish families and returning them to where they belong. The Monuments Men were one of these task forces. The Monuments Men (don’t worry, there were women involved too!) recovered countless masterpieces, including works by Jan van Eyck and Johannes Vermeer. 


3. The Rape Of Tamar Painting

rape of Tamar
The Rape of Tamar by Eustache Le Sueur, 1640, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 


Like the first two stolen artworks on the list, the Met Museum found that the painting The Rape of Tamar by French artist Eustache Le Sueur has a mysterious past.


The painting was bought by the Met Museum in 1984, shortly after it sold in a Christie’s auction a couple of years prior. The painting was brought to Christie’s by the daughters of Oskar Sommer, a German businessman who stole the painting according to new records.


The painting belongs to Siegfried Aram, a Jewish art dealer in Germany. He fled Germany in 1933 when Adolf Hitler took power. According to reports, Aram sold his home to Sommer after Sommer threatened Aram. Sommer took his art collection in the deal, leaving Aram with nothing as he escaped the country. For years, Aram tried to win back his stolen art but with no luck.

Siegfried aram Merritt
Portrait of Siegfried Aram by Warren Chase Merritt, 1938, via Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco


The Rape of Tamar depicts the old testament scene of Tamar assaulted by her half-brother Amnon. A disturbing scene on a large canvas, commanding the gallery space. Le Sueur paints the action right as it’s about to happen. The viewer can feel the danger from Tamar’s eyes as she stares at the dagger and the fierce eyes of her brother. The fabric from their clothes even moves violently. Le Sueur paused the danger before it happens; imagine if we can do that? With vibrant colors and realistic composition, Le Sueur paints a disturbing masterpiece. 


The Met Museum has been investigating the claims and revealed them to be correct; however, no heir of Aram has stepped forward, so currently, there is no one to take the painting from the Museum’s walls. Today, the Met’s website has corrected the provenance to include Aram as a previous owner of the work.


4. Euphronios Krater

euphronios krater
Euphronios Krater, 6th Century B.C., via Smarthistory


In 2008, Rome unveiled the Euphronios Krater to the public. There were victorious cheers because the 2,500-year-old vase was finally back home.


The red-on-black vase was created by the famous Italian artist Euphronios in 515 B.C. After two long years of negotiations, The Met Museum returned the stolen artwork to Italian officials after 36 years housed in the Met’s Greek and Roman Wing.


paolo giorgio ferri euphronios krater

Paolo Giorgio Ferri with the Euphronios Krater, via The Times


A krater is a vase where ancient Greeks and Italians would hold large amounts of water and wine. On the sides are scenes from mythology or history. On one side of the krater created by Euphronios depicts Sarpedon, Zeus’ son, carried by the God of Sleep (Hypnos) and the God of Death (Thanatos). Hermes makes an appearance, delivering a message to Sarpedon. On the opposite side, Euphronios depicts warriors preparing for battle. 


After a lengthy investigation, Italian court officials including prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri believe that tomb robbers found the krater in 1971. Convicted Italian dealer Giacomo Medici acquired the krater. From Medici, the krater fell into the hands of American dealer Robert Hecht who then sold it to the Met Museum for 1 million dollars. Hecht was never convicted for illegal dealing, but he always claimed his innocence up until his death in 2012. 



5. The Phoenician Marble Head Of A Bull 

marble head of bull
Marble Head of a Bull, via New York Times


The marble head of a bull wasn’t bought by the Met Museum but on loan by an American art collector. As a curator was researching the marble head, they concluded the sculpture is actually owned by Lebanon and illegally taken to America in the 1980s.


As soon as the Met Museum confirmed these facts, they immediately took the stolen artwork off view and in the hands of American authorities to await further action. This decision has launched a legal war against the Met and Lebanese officials from the artwork owners, The Beierwaltes family from Colorado. Expecting the artwork back, they want the sculpture to come home instead of Lebanon.


After months of battling, the Beierwaltes dropped the lawsuit. The marble sculpture returned home to Lebanon, where it belongs.


6. Dionysus Krater

dionysus krater italy
Dionysus Krater, via New York Times


Grecian kraters are in high demand since this is the second krater on our list! The 2,300-year-old vase depicts the God Dionysus, who is the god of wine, relaxing in a cart driven by a satyr. Dionysus was the god of partying and he is partying on the vase as he hears music played by his woman companion. 


Like the Euphronios Krater, the Dionysus Krater was taken by robbers in southern Italy in the 1970s. From there, Giacomo Medici bought the item. Eventually, the stolen artwork made its way to Sotheby’s, where the Met Museum bought the krater for 90,000 dollars.


The vase is now back in Italy, where it belongs, and for all of the artifacts listed above, the Met has taken action to bring these artifacts home. However, broader issues arise from these investigations: how can the Met prevent something like this again, and are there other artifacts stolen in the Met?


More On The Met Museum And Stolen Artifacts 

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art Façade on 5th Avenue photographed by Spencer Platt, 2018, via the New Yorker


For the first question, the Met is rethinking how they review acquisitions, but who knows how they can change the system. They believed in a lie, it was horrible, but it probably wasn’t their fault. The answer to the second question, however, is much more complicated. 


It’s unfortunate, but there are probably a lot of stolen artworks not only in the Met but also in every major art institution worldwide. Howard Carter, the archeologist who discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922, stole artifacts from the site after the Egyptian government refused to let most of the treasures found out of the country. This isn’t a new phenomenon, and the other artifacts on the list are evidence of this tragic truth. If you are looking to buy ancient artifacts to decorate your house, make sure you know who you are buying from and don’t make the same mistake as the Met Museum!


Author Image

By Zoe MannBA Art HistoryZoë is a graduate student living in Los Angeles studying screenwriting. Originally from New York, she received her B.A. in Art History from Pace University. She has worked in art galleries in Manhattan and the Art Institute of Chicago. In her free time, she loves researching for her historical fiction projects and playing with her cat, Harrison.