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Fool’s Gold at Metropolitan Museum: Tom Campbell’s Golden Coffin & Golden Parachute

The hits to the Metropolitan Museum’s finances attributable to its previous director, Tom Campbell, just keep on coming.

In a contrite press release, the museum reported on Feb. 15 that it had recently surrendered to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office (for return to Egypt) the gilded Coffin of Nedjemankh. Evidence had emerged that the late Ptolemaic cartonnage, “gilded with bright but incredibly thin gold” (according to the Met’s label), had been looted in 2011. The Met had shelled out some $3.95 million to buy it in 2017, according to a Met spokesperson.

Here it is, as displayed in a recent Met exhibition that closed early when the show’s errant headliner was unceremoniously escorted out of the building:

Gilded Coffin Belonging to Nedjemankh, Priest of Heryshef, 1st Century B.C.
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What the Met’s press release tactfully omitted is that although the ill-fated purchase occurred in July 2017, the month after Campbell left, the inadequate “due diligence” that had green-lighted the acquisition was “completed prior to his departure,” as Kenneth Weine, the museum’s chief communications officer, confirmed in response to my direct inquiry.

Although the Met claimed (in its press release) that “all of the museum’s acquisitions of ancient art undergo a rigorous vetting process [emphasis added],” Nedjemankh’s background check clearly wasn’t rigorous enough: The Met fell for an allegedly “false ownership history, fraudulent statements, and fake documentation, including a forged 1971 Egyptian export license for the coffin,” as it admitted in its press release.

Surely there are ways to verify with Egyptian authorities the legitimacy of a purported export license. To avoid future fiascos, attorney Rick St. Hilaire, the go-to blogger on cultural property issues, recommended that the Met “hire a provenance curator like the one the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has [currently Victoria Reed]—a professional whose job is to investigate the collecting histories of archaeological artifacts, paintings, and other cultural objects. That person should be full-time and have the experience to navigate the complex art and antiquities trade.”

The year when the golden coffin is said to have been looted, 2011, was a time of so much unrest in Egypt that Campbell himself issued a statement on Mar. 3, 2011 that “the entire museum community worldwide are increasingly concerned about what appear to be ongoing, grievous security breaches at Egypt’s historic sites and archaeological digs….These sites have remained unprotected for more than a month, and…looters continue to pillage them without effective resistance from police or military authorities.”

In other words: Buyer Beware.

It should be noted that in July 2017, when the Nedjemankh purchase was consummated, the Met was essentially directorless. Max Hollein didn’t arrive until Summer 2018. Daniel Weiss, the president and CEO, was a seasoned college administrator but lacked museum experience (other than service as a board member at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore) before arriving at the Met in 2015.

According to Weine, the acquisition process that led to the July 2017 purchase “involves review from the relevant curatorial department [Diana Craig Patch, curator in charge], the general counsel’s [Sharon Cott‘s] office, and the director’s office, and then moves on to board review.

Patch became acting associate curator in charge of the Egyptian department in 2012, upon the retirement of the department’s veteran chairman, Dorothea Arnold. The following year, Patch’s title was elevated to curator in charge of the Egyptian department (but not chairman).

Below is a screenshot of Patch from my CultureGrrl Video at the October 2015 press preview for the Met’s Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom (which, as I explained here, had no loans from Egypt). She mentioned (at 1:37) that the Met “worked with the [Egyptian] Ministry [of Antiquities]…on the repatriation of antiquities.”

Diana Craig Patch, the Met’s Curator in Charge of Egyptian Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Met, in its press release, vowed to “consider all available remedies to recoup the purchase price of the coffin.” Specifically, “the museum will be taking action against the dealer,” Weine told me. He confirmed reports that the museum had bought Nedjemankh through Paris dealer Christophe Kunicki. That name was omitted from the following (now allegedly false) information about Nedjemankh, which was posted on the Met’s collections website until the object (along with its online description) was removed:

The coffin was exported in 1971 from Egypt with an export license granted by the Antiquities Organization / Egyptian Museum, Cairo. It belonged to the stock of Habib Tawadrus, a dealer active since at least 1936, with a shop Habib and Company in Cairo opposite Shepheard’s Hotel, and was exported by the representative of the Tawadrus’ heirs to Switzerland.

An official translation of the export license was provided by the German embassy in Cairo in February 1977 for the use of the representative and now owner in Europe. The coffin has remained in the family of that owner until its acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum in 2017.

When I asked for more details about where, when and how Nedjemankh was believed to have been looted, the Met referred me to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which had brought the allegedly false ownership history and fake documentation to the Met’s attention. But veteran prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos, the assistant DA who leads the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, would tell me only this:

This is an active criminal investigation and so there is very little we can say, other than to confirm the execution of the search warrant on the Met.

Assistant Manhattan DA Matthew Bogdanos

As for the “Golden Parachute” part of this post’s headline—the Met’s 2017 IRS Form 990 states on this page that Campbell’s compensation from the Met in calendar year 2017 totaled a whopping $3,017,012—$543,317 in “base compensation,” $2,146,890 in “other reportable income,” $27,000 in “retirement and other deferred compensation,” and $299,805 in “nontaxable benefits.”

The biggest windfall (as revealed on this page of the Form 990) was the generous $1.5 million in severance pay. The Met declined to comment on whether that amount was contractual and, if so, what written provisions triggered such a munificent sendoff.

an ArtsJournal blog