The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is set to exhibit four ancient carved stones which were found in an east London interior design shop by an archaeology enthusiast.
In a historic agreement with the Republic of Yemen, the museum will research and temporarily care for the funerary stelae, which are thought to have been illegally looted from Yemen.
After they were discovered by an archaeology enthusiast, the stones were recovered by the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiques unit, which investigates art theft, illegal trafficking, and fraud.
The public will be able to see the items as part of a new display which will open at V&A East Storehouse from 2025.
The agreement between the museum and Yemen was signed on Tuesday by the director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt, and Yassin Saeed Noman Ahmed, ambassador for the Republic of Yemen, based in the UK.
The V&A will take responsibility for the care of the stelae temporarily, until it has been decided that it is safe to return the objects to their country of origin.
The objects are of the type listed on the International Council of Museum’s emergency red list of cultural objects at risk.
Director of the V&A, Hunt, said that he was “delighted” at the agreement.
He said: “This is an historic agreement that will give the public the chance to appreciate these exceptional examples of Yemeni culture and creativity, before the objects are repatriated, and shine a light on how the V&A’s Culture in Crisis programme helps curtail the illegal trade of looted objects and the preservation of cultural heritage worldwide.”
Commander Clayman, central specialist crime, Metropolitan Police, said: “The art and antiques unit seized these four stelae from a shop in London following information received from a concerned member of the public.
“The police investigation established that they are ancient archaeological artefacts from Yemen, and came from necropoli that have been subjected to looting in recent years.
“When the seller was given this information they made the generous decision to disclaim them, and asked for them to be returned to Yemen.
“I am pleased that we have been able to achieve this today. I hope that when these pieces go on display at V&A East Storehouse, they may encourage people to consider antiquities from a legal perspective as well as an aesthetic one.
Today, marks an historic agreement between the V&A and Republic of Yemen to research and temporarily care for four ancient carved stone funerary stelae. You can find out more about this unique agreement on our blog 👇 #VamEasthttps://t.co/m9qUIqGjbU pic.twitter.com/7BUUeaFea2
— V&A East (@vam_east) September 12, 2023
“By establishing an artefact’s provenance before purchase they may avoid inadvertently fuelling the demand for stolen cultural goods. The art and antiques unit would like to thank everyone who contributed to the investigation and this positive outcome.”
Charles Harper, UK charge d’affaires and deputy ambassador to Yemen, said: “Arts and culture can play an important role in rebuilding a society from conflict and this agreement is a fantastic way to ensure Yemeni culture remains in Yemeni care.
“The war has taken a devastating toll on Yemenis. The UK will continue to support UN-led efforts to bring about a sustainable and inclusive peace in Yemen.”
The V&A’s Culture in Crisis programme was established in 2015 and looks to protect cultural heritage by working closely to support law-enforcement around the world to help prevent the illicit trade of cultural artefacts.
The stones will go on show at V&A East Storehouse, which is one of two new V&A East sites currently under construction in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Set to open in 2025, it will comprise conservation labs, working stores, research and reading rooms, galleries, display and performance spaces and creative studios.