I fell for a “Swiss Private Collection” lie, dammit

My only excuse, and it’s a terrible one that you should throw back in my face in disgust, is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art fell for it too. Had they accepted a fraudulent ownership record starring a Swiss private collector a few years back I would have laughed mirthlessly at the very idea of it, but the sensitivity to potentially looted artifacts is so much higher now that museums and auction houses have been dragged kicking and screaming into giving a damn by source countries creating legal and PR nightmares for them. That such a recent, high-profile, much-publicized sale could be a looted artifact with phony papers is an ugly testament to how deep the rot runs in the antiquities market.

In September 2017, the Met announced the acquisition of what is without question the most beautiful, perfectly-preserved and uniquely rich cartonnage coffin I’ve ever seen. Made from layers of linen, gesso and resin, covered in gilding front and back and lined with sheets of silver foil inside the lid, the mummiform coffin was the final resting place of Late Ptolemaic official Nedjemankh, a priest of Heryshef in Heracleopolis Magna.

The gilded coffin of Nedjemankh went on display immediately in the museum’s Egyptian Art gallery, and soon got a dedicated exhibition that ran from July 2018 until Tuesday, February 12th. Or at least it was meant to. There was supposed to be an exhibition tour beginning on February 22nd. No longer. I don’t know exactly which day, but the coffin was taken off display this week.

On Friday the museum announced that it was returning the coffin to Egypt because the Manhattan’s DA Office had found evidence that the Swiss private collection and legal export document from 1971 were nothing but happy horseshit conjured up by traffickers in looted antiquities. Not only was it not legally exported in 1971, it didn’t leave Egypt until 2011 and I don’t need to tell you the circumstances were very, very far from legal.

Notwithstanding the representations that the coffin had been exported from Egypt in 1971, recent evidence suggests it was looted from Egypt in 2011. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said, “Stewards of the world’s most important artifacts have a duty to hold their acquisitions to the highest level of scrutiny. Following my Office’s investigation, this beautiful piece of ancient Egyptian history will soon be returned to its rightful place. Our Antiquities Trafficking Unit will continue to root out stolen antiquities in our fight to stop the looting of historic sites and the trade of stolen artifacts around the world.”

The seller was a Paris dealer named Christophe Kunicki. The Met is less than pleased with him having paid 3.5 million euros (just under $4 million) for the coffin in July of 2017, just six years after it was stolen from Egypt. This character has yet to comment on the fraudulent sale and the Met plans to consider “all means,” according to spokesman Kenneth Weine, for the recovery of the $4 million they were conned out of. There is no word on any criminal action that might be taken against him, and there probably won’t be.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today it will review and revise its acquisitions process. Max Hollein, Director of The Met, said, “Our museum must be a leader among our peers in the respect for cultural property and in the rigor and transparency of the policy and practices that we follow. We will learn from this event—specifically I will be leading a review of our acquisitions program—to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future.”

Here’s one revision to any museum or collector’s acquisition policy that needs to be carved in stone from now on: buy nothing purporting to come from Swiss private collections. It’s a scam every damn time. The Met apologized to Egypt profusely and abjectly, as well it should, and I do the same to you, as well I should. I can’t believe I was so thoroughly duped by the oldest lie in the book, one I have mocked and excoriated ad nauseum in this very blog a million times before.

10 thoughts on “I fell for a “Swiss Private Collection” lie, dammit

  1. And yet. Those big Buddhist statues in Afghanistan were destroyed by moslem fanatics; had they been lootable they might have been removed long before and preserved in the West (or even in China). I dare say much the same thing applies to lots of treasures of the Mespot.

    Still, maybe Egyptians take enough pride in their distant past that such stuff is pretty safe there – in which case this argument fails. But then stuff had survived in the Mespot and Syria for millennia before some fanatical scoundrels decided on destruction.

    I was struck by an article in this morning’s Telegraph about a beautiful old Anglo-Saxon codex that had survived because it had been sent to Italy 1300 years ago. If it had been kept in these islands the Vikings might well have destroyed it.

    This is an argument for dispersing art treasures, not for stealing them. But even dispersion has its risks. I am none too keen on the accumulation of art treasures in California, a state prone to earthquakes, wildfires, and Lord knows what other risks.

  2. It took me a while, but “Mespot” = ‘Mesopotamia’ in between Euphrates (“Prat”) and Tigris (“Kat”)?!? 😉

    Indeed, what Genghis Khan, all the Lords Protectors and Attila the Hun unites, is probably their subtle sense for ..’cultural heritage’. Of course, a “collection” to a safe spot can help, in contrast to all the collections that in an orderly fashion were burned down in WWII.

    To the “Met” and other potential buyers, however, I would like to recommend that “Swiss booty” and “loot from Luxembourg and all their free-trade zones” are not safe. Even if a lot of safes are involved in their rather murky ‘bisiness’.


  3. I do not know of any art or historical losses in California due to wildfires, earthquakes or our recent floods. I do know of a painting lost at the Huntington Library and Museum when fireman pried open a elevator shaft engulfed in fire, and the super-heated air hit a painting opposite the shaft and and it was reduced to ashes in an instance. I also know the Portland vase was smashed in England, The Night Watch was slashed in Amsterdam,,and the Pieta was mutilated with a hammer in the Vatican. Never mind the losses in Europe during the wars. The Met in New York has a long history of questionable purchases and acquisitions. Likewise so does the Getty in California. The Met though has been at it a bit longer. The Swiss have a long history of facilitating the sale and movement of looted property and patrimony and anything with a Swiss “provenance” should be a red flag for any museum or collector.

  4. M’Lady Livius,

    While I can understand your outrage over the theft and illegal sale of this object, and many others, it is not your fault if you reported on it earlier as fact. Your role as blogger is to comment upon and share stories. If the story later turns out to be fraudulent, you can hardly be blamed. It is not your museum, and you are not part of any police agency.

    Your candor is appreciated, but lighten up on yourself!

    Yours Aye,


  5. Today’s Arab ‘egyptians’ have zero claim to the cultural heritage of ancient Egyptians. The Current inhabitantsinvaded and either killed or displaced the natives. They don’t even share the same DNA markers. It’s an insult to the cultural heritage of the modern world for a bunch of foreign invaders to claim they have any right to the antiquities of the ancient Egyptians just because they occupy the same land 4,000 years later. Even Americans recognize that Native American artifacts belong to the tribes, not to the European who has title to the land. It’s misappropriation at its worst that Cairo claims a Right to these artifacts even though they have zero connection to them whatsoever.

  6. What is your evidence that a few Arab cavalrymen changed the DNA of Egyptians beyond recognition?

    I ask because I suspect you of talking bollocks. Doubtless the moslem slave trade introduced more subSaharan DNA into Egypt but otherwise I know of no reason to suppose that the Arabs much altered Egyptian DNA. It’s certainly well established that invading Arabs left the DNA of the Lebanon virtually unchanged. So why wouldn’t it be true of the much more populous Egypt?

  7. Very good point with one small disagreement. Sub-Saharan DNA has been coming down the Nile for millennia. The Arab slave trade also contributed its part in the last thousand years.

  8. The money from all antiquities sales should be held in an escrow account until paperwork verified. There must be a maximum time period allowed so buyers don’t drag things on.

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