The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art announces it has entered a partnership with the Republic of Yemen Government to provide safe storage and care for 77 objects that the United States government is repatriating to the Republic of Yemen. Sixty-four of the objects were forfeited to the United States as a result of investigative efforts initiated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations and a criminal case by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. The other 13 items were intercepted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Department of Justice being illegally transported into the United States.
The objects will enter the custody of the National Museum of Asian Art Feb. 21 as part of a repatriation ceremony hosted by the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen Government in Washington, D.C., with officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The repatriation is a noteworthy moment as it is the first time in almost 20 years that the U.S. government has returned cultural property to Yemen. The previous repatriation in 2004 involved the return of a single funerary stele (carved stone) to the Yemeni embassy. The country has experienced heavy looting and destruction of its tangible cultural heritage since 2014 as a result of the conflict.
The Yemeni embassy and U.S. Department of State first approached the National Museum of Asian Art in January 2023 to propose a partnership that would ensure the objects remained safe during Yemen’s ongoing unrest. The museum is charged with the storage and care of the 77 objects and is permitted to document and exhibit the collection to foster a greater understanding of ancient Yemeni art. The Republic of Yemen Government and the Smithsonian have entered into a two-year custodial agreement with the option to renew at the request of the Republic of Yemen Government. The embassy will advise on access to, research on and conservation of the objects.
“On behalf of the people and Government of Yemen, we are thrilled to see Yemen retaking ownership of its cultural heritage,” said Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, the ambassador of the Republic of Yemen to the United States. “With the current situation in Yemen, it is not the right time to bring the objects back into the country. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is a global leader in the field of cultural heritage and preservation. We are pleased to see these objects in their care.”
“The National Museum of Asian Art is staunchly committed to the preservation of cultural heritage, and it is an honor to be entrusted with the care of this exceptional piece of history,” said Chase F. Robinson, Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. “As the museum enters its second century, we are focused on new approaches that allow visitors to deepen their understanding of Asian arts and cultures. Our partnership with the Republic of Yemen Government and its embassy is a powerful example of how shared stewardship of objects can build bridges and serve as a catalyst for learning and understanding, and we look forward to working with the Yemeni community to tell their stories.”
The 77 objects include a bronze bowl, 11 folios from early Qur’ans and 65 funerary stelae dated to the second half of the first millennium B.C. from northwest Yemen. The stone faces are carved in relief and characterized by wide-open eyes. Some show traces of pigment, while others bear the inscription of the name of the deceased. This important collection contributes to knowledge of ancient south Arabian onomastics (study of names) and funerary practices, and a selection of the repatriated objects may join the exhibition “Ancient Yemen: Incense, Art, and Trade,” on view at the National Museum of Asian Art. The museum plans to engage with the Yemeni community and listen to their perspectives to inform how these objects are interpreted in the exhibition. The object labels will also call attention to the current situation in Yemen and the story of their journey to the National Museum of Asian Art.
The National Museum of Asian Art’s stewardship of these objects is the latest example of its long track record in the field of cultural heritage preservation, including a current international research project supported by the Carnegie Corporation. The museum is home to a world-class Department of Conservation and Scientific Research and is a leader in international conservation training and collaboration. It is now applying its expertise to new projects that are driving capacity building and cultural exchange in all areas of museum operations.
As the Smithsonian implements its shared stewardship and ethical returns policy, this partnership with Yemen will serve as an exemplary model of how U.S. museums can work with other countries to steward cultural objects and share them with broad audiences.
About the National Museum of Asian Art
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is committed to preserving, exhibiting, researching and interpreting art in ways that deepen our collective understanding of Asia and the world. Home to more than 45,000 objects, the museum stewards one of North America’s largest and most comprehensive collections of Asian art, with works dating from antiquity to the present from China, Japan, Korea, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world. Its rich holdings bring the arts of Asia into direct dialogue with an important collection of 19th- and early 20th-century American works, providing an essential platform for creative collaboration and cultural exchange between the United States, Asia and the Middle East.
Beginning with a 1906 gift that paved the way for the museum’s opening in 1923, the National Museum of Asian Art is a leading resource for visitors, students and scholars in the United States and internationally. Its galleries, laboratories, archives and library are located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and are part of the world’s largest museum complex, which typically reports more than 27 million visits each year. The museum is free and open to the public 364 days a year (closed Dec. 25), making its exhibitions, programs, learning opportunities and digital initiatives accessible to global audiences.