A number of looted artifacts brought back to Turkey and Italy over the past three months appear to come from the collection of prominent American philanthropist Shelby White. The objects were confiscated over the past 18 months as part of a long-running investigation into the provenance of her private collection at White’s Manhattan home.
Search warrants issued by the Manhattan Attorney’s Office on June 28, 2021 and April 27, 2022, seen by The art newspaper, list five and 18 works respectively that Homeland Security agents found “reasonable reason” to believe were stolen. According to the documents, it is evidence of criminal possession of first, second, third and fourth degree stolen property and conspiracy to commit these crimes.
Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the Manhattan Attorney’s Office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, declined to comment as the case is active. White also preferred not to comment and tell The Art Newspaper: “I really have nothing to say.”
White is a major donor to institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she is a trustee and board member, and New York University, whose Institute for the Study of the Ancient World she founded through a controversial $200 million gift in 2006 . With her late husband Leon Levy, whose eponymous foundation she now directs, she built a collection of ancient art representing ancient Near Eastern, Greek, Etruscan, Roman and other cultures. White and Levy also presented a $20 million gift to the Met, and in 2007 the institution named a monumental gallery of Greek and Roman art the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court.
This isn’t the first time the Levy White collection has been searched for looted objects. In 1990, more than 200 objects from the couple’s collection at the Met were featured in the exhibition Glory of the Past: Ancient Art from the Collection of Shelby White and Leon Levy; a decade later, archaeologists David Gill and Christopher Chippindale published a study in which they found that 93 percent of the works on display had no known provenance. In 2008, White turned over ten classical antiquities to Italian authorities, as well as two objects from the 4th century BC. to Greece. In 2011, the torso became the Tired Heracles Statue co-owned by Levy and White and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and on display at glories of the pastwas returned to Turkey.
Several works published in the glories of the past Catalog are among those confiscated in recent repatriation efforts. In October, a life-size bronze statue of the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus, dated to the late second to early third centuries AD, and four pieces of an Anatolian columnar sarcophagus from the ancient city of Perge, dated between 170 and 180 CE, returned after joint repatriation efforts by prosecutors from Manhattan, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism returned to Turkey. White’s April 27 search warrant lists the statue’s value at $15 million and the sarcophagus fragments at $1 million.
Both works were unveiled on November 13 during a repatriation ceremony at the Antalya Museum along with four other looted objects, including an Early Bronze Age marble Kusura idol and an Apollo figurine. According to the US Consulate General in Istanbul, the artifacts were extracted from illegal excavations in Turkey more than 50 years ago and smuggled into the United States. The previous owners of all six works have been identified by Hurriyet Daily News than two auction houses and an unnamed collector in the United States.
But Gill, an honorary professor at the Center for Heritage at the University of Kent, quickly made the connection to White, noting the objects’ appearance on his blog Looting Matters glories of the past. Gil also published a list of objects formerly in the Levy-White Collection, which have hitherto been returned. Many of them were identified by his former student Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist and antiquities trade expert who is affiliated with Ionian University in Greece and has sent photographic evidence to the Manhattan Attorney’s office.
The list on Looting Matters details artifacts confiscated from White’s home earlier this year and returned to Italy in September: a red-figure calyx crater (about 515 BC, estimated at $3 million); an Apulian guttus with ram’s head spout (circa 330 BC, value $15,000); and two fish plates attributed to the Squid Painters and the Perrone-Phrixos group of painters (mid-4th century BC, both valued at $20,000). The art newspaper a “Bronze Bust of Man” (1st century BC, value $3 million) was also identified among the confiscated objects; a cauldron with four animal heads (6th century BC, valued at $150,000); and a bronze spiral brooch (worth $25,000) formerly owned by White. They were among 58 antiques that Manhattan prosecutors returned in September, including 21 from the Met.
At least one other object, a ritual dinosaur from 700 BC. Seized from White’s collection under the June 2021 warrant, it was also returned to Italy. It was among nearly 200 looted Greek and Roman artifacts reclaimed from museums and homes across the United States in December 2021 in what officials described as the largest single repatriation of relics from the United States to Italy.
White has yet to be named in official repatriation notices, but Gill expects more announcements to come from the Manhattan DA’s office. “I think it’s very telling that they didn’t say it was Shelby’s,” he says of the returned artifacts. “So this is now part of a clearly much larger investigation… We’ve had material shipped back to Italy and Turkey. I think there is material that should go back to Greece.”
Museums, he adds, should consider and appropriately value future loans from the White and Levy collection. “Apparently they acquired a number of items that were illegally excavated and removed from their countries of origin outside of the legal framework,” he says. “I’m sure they would say they bought things in good faith. But the scale of looting we know – they had to do their due diligence before acquiring it. And museums have to exercise due diligence when accepting loans.”
But Tsirogiannis says he’s not optimistic museums will change their modus operandi. “The antique market and the museums do what the collectors do: they don’t check their objects with the authorities; Instead, they try to hold on to them for as long as possible because they think they can get away with it,” he says. “But in reality, they are waiting – perhaps without even meaning to – for the inevitable: the authorities are knocking on their door with an arrest warrant. It’s their choice to follow this strategy, but they should know by now that it won’t work and they should change their mindset.
“The recent case of the Shelby Whites collection is further evidence among many to this point.”