The two 7th-century stone carvings, currently valued at $3.5 million, had been sawn off a tomb by thieves in the early 1990s and smuggled out of China, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement.
The carvings were among 89 antiquities from 10 different countries purchased by Shelby White, a private art collector in New York.
From 1998, they were “loaned” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art until they were seized this year by the DA’s office following a criminal investigation.
“It is a shame that these two incredible antiquities were stolen and at least one remained largely hidden from the public view for nearly three decades,” Bragg said.
“While their total value is more than $3 million, the incredible detail and beauty of these pieces can never be truly captured by a price tag.”
Collectively valued at nearly $69 million, they were part of a criminal investigation by the city’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit that tracks and repatriates looted artifacts.
One of the funerary carvings was kept in the museum’s storage room and never displayed, according to the statement by Bragg’s office.
It was never cleaned and caked in dirt, another tell-tale sign of their illicit origin, the statement added.
The carvings were handed over during a repatriation ceremony at the Chinese consulate in New York.
“We regard the crackdown on crimes against cultural property a sacred mission,” Chinese Consul General Huang Ping was quoted as saying in the statement by the DA’s office.
Since January 2022, more than 950 antiquities worth over $165 million have been returned to 19 countries, including Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Greece, Turkey, and Italy.
In 2021, Michael Steinhardt, a private collector, returned around 180 stolen antiquities worth $70 million following an out-of-court agreement, in one of the most famous cases of art trafficking in New York.