Via ProPublica, April 25, 2023
Stepping into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Shyanne Beatty was eager to view the Native American works that art collectors Charles and Valerie Diker had been accumulating for nearly half a century. But as she entered the museum’s American Wing that day in 2018, her excitement turned to shock as two wooden masks came into view.
Beatty, an Alaska Native, had worked on a radio documentary about the two Alutiiq objects and how they and others like them had been plundered from tribal land about 150 years ago. Now, the masks were on display in the biggest and most esteemed art museum in the Western Hemisphere. “It was super shocking to me,” she said.
The Met’s ownership history for the masks, also known as provenance, omits more than a century of their whereabouts. Historians say the masks were taken in 1871. But the museum’s timeline doesn’t start until 2003, when the Dikers bought them from a collector. Ownership was transferred to the Met in 2017.
The Dikers, who have amassed one of the most significant private collections of Native American works, have been donating or lending objects to the Met since 1993. In 2017, as other institutions grappled with returning colonial-era spoils, the Met announced the Dikers’ gift of another 91 Native American works.
A ProPublica review of records the museum has posted online found that only 15% of the 139 works donated or loaned by the Dikers over the years have solid or complete ownership histories, with some lacking any provenance at all. Most either have no histories listed, leave gaps in ownership ranging from 200 to 2,000 years or identify previous owners in such vague terms as an “English gentleman” and “a family in Scotland.”