Is the bronze statue that was seized-in-place by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg really from Bubon (the ancient city in what is now Turkey), as claimed by the DA in support of his effort to dislodge it from its longtime home at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), relocating it to Turkey, its supposed country of origin?
Notwithstanding the unequivocal claims made by Assistant DA Matthew Bogdanos, the CMA has persuasively argued that the presumed “facts” underlying the case for removing one of the museum’s finest objects are far from certain. In its 10-page complaint (plus exhibits) filed on Oct. 19 in US District Court, the museum has asserted that “the identity of the Statue is unknown, although there has been speculation that it represents Sophocles (or another philosopher or a noble in philosopher’s dress), Lucius Verus or Marcus Aurelius, the latter two both Roman emperors.”
Although Marcus Aurelius had been identified by the museum’s former curator of ancient art, Arielle Kozloff, as the sculpture’s subject, the museum now asserts (in its new court filing) that “without the head of the statue, based on current knowledge, any identification is virtually impossible [emphasis added]….The evidence supporting the presence of the Statue at Bubon remains speculative and relies on an older theory that has not faced significant challenges. The complete absence of scientific evidence linking the statue to Bubon, as well as a lack of substantial archaeological support, contribute to the uncertainty surrounding its identification.”
CMA’s complaint further states that “based on subsequent research, she [Kozloff] now believes that the Philosopher did not come from Bubon [emphasis added] and that any previously stated connection between Bubon and the Philosopher is mere conjecture….The Museum has also consulted experts who have cast significant doubt on the identification of the Philosopher as Marcus Aurelius, and currently believe that it is much more likely that the headless figure is a depiction of a Greek philosopher [Marcus was Roman], based on the robes the figure is wearing and dissimilarities to other statues of Marcus Aurelius. Those experts also cast substantial doubt on the notion that the Philosopher was ever in Bubon or in modern day Türkiye.”
The CMA also noted, in its complaint, that there was “no prior claim” to the statue “in the decades in which the Museum has openly displayed the Philosopher….Plaintiff [the CMA] does not question that the New York District Attorney sometimes gets it right and returns true stolen property to foreign nations….This is not one of those times.”
Similarly, Graham Bowley and Tom Mashberg usually “get it right” in their deeply researched reporting on cultural-property issues. But in their article about Cleveland’s bronze in Tuesday’s NY Times, they failed to quote from Cleveland’s court filing. As investigative reporters, they certainly know that such filings are public documents that journalists (and others) have a right to obtain. Without giving the museum’s side of the story (as I’ve done, above), they have privileged the viewpoint of a pugnacious prosecutor who has openly derided “the world of cocktail parties and bespoke suits and limousines pulling up to the curb,” as Bogdanos characterized museum benefactors in an interview last March on “CBS Sunday Morning”:
“How could I ask someone of that stature, ‘Do you have the invoice or do you have any proof that it was legally removed from the country of origin?’ That was then. I got it! This is now.”
Speaking of problematic segment titles (as in, “Rescuing,” above), it’s interesting to note how the Times has altered its headline for Bowley’s and Mashberg’s article from Monday’s online version…
…to Tuesday’s more Bubon-friendly hardcopy version:
UPDATE: I just checked the Times’ online headline, and they’ve changed it! It now reads: “Who Looted an Ancient Roman Shrine? A Village Finally Tells.”
What’s more (or maybe less), the hardcopy version of the Times piece unequivocally identifies the subject of Cleveland’s bronze as “Marcus Aurelius”—an identification that the CMA now disputes:
Speaking of headlines: Mine, for this post, was more resonant than I knew when I wrote it. When I later did an online search on “Bubonic Plague,” the top entry was from the CLEVELAND Clinic.
But more seriously: Below is a screenshot from a Smarthistory video of monumental former gallery-mates, as previously installed at the Metropolitan Museum. In the foreground: a statue of Roman emperor Septimius Severus, said by investigators to have been stolen from Turkey in the 1960s and seized from the Met in February by DA Bragg. In the background, to the left, is a statue that (as I had noted in this post) bore striking similarities to the one just seized from the CMA:
As it happened, Daniel Weiss, the Met’s former president and CEO who stepped down from those posts in June, gave a talk yesterday at Yale on “Why the Museum Matters,” in which he discussed repatriation issues (among many other hot topics). The talk’s title was also the title of his new book, published a year ago by Yale University Press (one hand washing the other?), which will be issued in paperback this February:
In yesterday’s talk (which you can replay here), Weiss discussed the legalities and ethics of repatriation, citing the Parthenon Marbles and Benin sculptures as key examples.
I think the right way forward is for museums to think of themselves as global enterprises with all kinds of interconnections with other institutions. Who holds title to the object is less important and less interesting than how the object is being studied and presented, and how these relationships can be fostered. We [at the Met] entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Nigerian Government, in order to work with them on these questions [regarding Benin], to share expertise, and to share works of art. And I think that’s the direction that we’re going in.
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