Met Museum Hires Its First Head of Provenance Research

Met Museum Hires Its First Head of Provenance Research

As part of its more aggressive restitution investigation efforts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday announced that it had appointed a Sotheby’s executive to the newly created position of head of provenance research.

Lucian Simmons will leave Sotheby’s, where he is vice chairman and worldwide head of the restitution department — and senior specialist for the Impressionist and Modern art department — to take on the role of coordinating research efforts across the museum, starting in May.

Like museums all over the world, the Met has faced increased scrutiny from law enforcement officials, academics and the news media over the extent to which its collection of more than 1.5 million works includes looted artifacts. In recent years, for example, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has seized dozens of antiquities from the museum to return them to countries including Turkey, Egypt and Italy.

In a telephone interview, Max Hollein, the museum’s director and chief executive, said the volume of materials an auction house must review gave Simmons the background necessary to take on a review of the Met’s encyclopedic collection.

“He has a vast amount of experience understanding the level of research you need to apply and what timelines you need to set to get to a result,” Hollein said. “He probably had to deal with more issues at Sotheby’s than have many other institutions. You have to vet and scrutinize a huge number of objects. He’s someone who understands the theory but who also has a very practical attitude.”

The Met last year announced a major new effort to review its holdings and policies with a view toward returning items it finds to have problematic histories.

Simmons, who has worked on restitution and provenance matters since 1997 when he started the Sotheby’s team dedicated to these efforts, will lead an expanded group of researchers at the museum. Their work will be coordinated with the deputy director for collections and administration and will be done in consultation with the office of the Met’s general counsel.

“What I hope to bring to it is a system of collaboration and a rigor to the incredible research that the team of the Met already does,” Simmons said, “helping cement the Met’s reputation as a leader in this field.”

Sotheby’s has drawn criticism over the years for attempting to sell artifacts with murky provenance, but Simmons said he had worked to emphasize transparency at the auction house, an approach he would continue at the Met. “Everyone sees the provenance as published in the catalog and you’re producing a very public document,” he said. “What I’ve always tried to do is make sure we’re very open.”

As to whether increasing vigilance on these issues by law enforcement makes his job harder, Simmons said: “The challenge is not the amount of scrutiny, the challenge is the number of data points that you have to hit, the number of sources you have to research — not only with World War II, but also with cultural patrimony issues.”

At the Met, Simmons will work with the curators to confirm research on all objects currently in the collection, or being acquired, that can be considered cultural property or that may have Nazi-era provenance.

Before joining Sotheby’s, Simmons was a partner in the London law firm Barlow, Lyde & Gilbert after studying law at the London School of Economics.

The museum also announced an expanded position for Maya Muratov, who is already engaged in provenance research in its department of Greek and Roman art. And the Met created new provenance research positions in the departments of Asian art, the American Wing (with a focus on Native American art), and Egyptian art, which are being filled by Qamar Adamjee, Jennifer Day and Maxence Garde, respectively.

These new positions and promotions increase the number of Met employees in provenance research from six to 11.

In its announcement on Friday, the Met pointed to signs of “significant progress” in its provenance research efforts, including signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Culture of the Government of India last month “outlining future cooperation on educational initiatives, exhibitions, and exchanges of scholarship and expertise.”

Last year, the Met transferred ownership of two ancient sculptures in its collection to Yemen, nearly 40 years after they were removed from an archaeological site near the ancient city of Marib, and a month later returned to Nepal a 13th-century wooden temple strut and an 11th-century stone image of Vishnu.

In December, in response to requests from the Cambodian government, the Met announced it had agreed to return 16 major Khmer-era artworks — 14 to Cambodia and two to Thailand. All the items were associated with Douglas A.J. Latchford, a Met donor and prolific dealer who was indicted as an illegal trafficker of ancient artifacts shortly before his death in 2020.

The Met has started object web pages for all returned works of art, specifying their return and to what country.

The museum has also started a series of “Cultural Heritage Now” panels, the first of which last June highlighted provenance research underway at the Met, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The second panel featured presentations on the Rubin Museum’s partnership in Nepal and the Met’s Indian Conservation Fellowship Program.

“Just as I’ve researched tens of thousands of objects a year, at the Met there is a wider universe of assets,” Simmons said. “It’s all about having a process in place and being transparent about that process.”

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