As the world waits for Alvin Bragg to arrest former president Donald Trump, the Manhattan District Attorney has been very busy. But maybe not in the way political observers might expect.
Rather than announce Trump’s arrest, Bragg has been steadily repatriating looted antiquities to their country of origin.
Trump publicly declared on March 18 that he expects to be arrested this week over Bragg’s investigation into $130,000 worth of hush money paid to Stormy Daniels, an adult film star with whom Trump allegedly had an affair.
Bragg has stayed silent on the possible indictment of Trump, and instead is tweeting about his office’s return of stolen antiquities to Greece and Turkey, frustrating some social media users.
“Indict already” and “Read the room!!,” responded some Twitter users to Bragg’s antiquity announcements. “Not sure how appropriate it is that you’re tweeting while the rest of us are waiting for the indictment of trump,” wrote another.
Amid the wide range of issues district attorneys are responsible for overseeing, illicit antiquities have increasingly become a focus at the Manhattan DA’s office. Under the tenure of Bragg, who was elected in 2021, the office’s Antiquity Trafficking Unit (ATU) has repatriated around 950 antiquities valued at more than $160 million to 17 nations. These returns have been widely publicized, with around 13 percent of the DA’s press releases since 2022 focusing exclusively on antiquity repatriations.
Since its creation in 2017 under former Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, the ATU, led by assistant DA Matthew Bogdanos, has returned almost 2,500 antiquities valued at more than $238 million.
New York is the hub of the art and antiquities world in the U.S., said Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s art crime team. The Manhattan DA’s ATU is therefore “a natural fit.”
Why does Bragg focus on antiquities?
While the FBI art crime team focuses more on prosecuting individuals in criminal art cases, Wittman said the ATU typically pursues recoveries and repatriations.
“It’s always good news,” he said. “As a result, there’s a lot of good public relations they get out of it.”
In addition to the positive media representation for the DA’s office, the focus on antiquity reparations has significantly curtailed illicit sales and transports of works, said Wittman. “It’s had a rather large impact on the the collection industry in New York and the U.S.”
On March 21, Bragg announced the return of 29 looted antiquities to Greece, valued at more than $20 million, including an Eid Mar coin minted in 42 BC to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar. Richard Beale, director of Roma Numismatics, a London-based auction house which sold the coin in 2020, was arrested in January for allegedly falsifying the Eid Mar’s provenance.
And yesterday (March 22) the DA revealed his office’s repatriation of $33 million worth of antiquities to Turkey, including nine works from the collection of Shelby White, a trustee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In December, the ATU seized nearly two dozen antiquities from White’s home. The investigation into her collection, which resulted in the seizure of 89 antiquities valued at $69 million, has since concluded with no apparent charges, according to Bragg’s press release.