Met Museum Returns Ancient Sumerian Statue to Iraq

“Man carrying a box, possibly for offerings” (c. 2,900–2,600 BCE), Sumerian, copper alloy (image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City returned a 3rd-century BCE Sumerian sculpture to Iraq, according to an announcement Tuesday, April 16. Unlike recent Met restitutions spurred by the Manhattan District Attorney’s investigations, this return was prompted by internal provenance research at the museum, which established that the object “rightfully belongs to Iraq.” 

The 14-inch-high statue shows a man carrying a box on his head, a motif that may depict offerings being delivered to a temple. Each city in Ancient Mesopotamia had a religious site dedicated to the locale’s patron god, and the large structures and their surrounding farmlands served as economic centers. 

The museum did not specify when or why it began investigating the artifact’s provenance but noted that it officially deaccessioned the work in October 2023. The institution purchased the statue from dealer and collector Elias S. David in 1955.

“The Met is committed to the responsible collecting of antiquities and to the shared stewardship of the world’s cultural heritage,” museum Director Max Hollein said in the statement. “We are honored to collaborate with the Republic of Iraq on the return of this sculpture, and we value the important relationships we have fostered with our colleagues there.” 

Following a string of high-profile seizures, a ProPublica report showing that many Native collection objects lacked thorough ownership histories, and an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists story linking more than 1,000 museum objects to antiquities smugglers, The Met announced last May that it would hire a team of dedicated provenance researchers as part of a new cultural property initiative.

The institution posted a job listing for the new department’s director in July, and Sotheby’s former Worldwide Restitution Head Lucian Simmons secured the position last month. He begins in May.

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Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art’s role in history, culture, and politics.
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