USA confiscates ancient statue of Roman emperor from museum

The New York Times

A statue that has occupied a prominent place in the Greek and Roman galleries of the Cleveland Museum of Art in the United States since 1986 and is believed to have depicted the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was seized in early August as part of an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office pieces plundered from Turkey.

Now no longer on display, the 1.93 meter high, headless bronze sculpture must be transported to New York, where the traffickers accused of moving pieces of this type would take action giving the prosecutor in charge of human trafficking the legal authority there to confiscate the works art.

Turkish authorities say they have informed the Cleveland Museum that the statue was stolen in the 1960s during a looting spree at an archaeological site in Bubon, southwestern Turkey. According to Ankara, the museum rejected their claims and claimed Turkey had no evidence of the theft.

Zeynep Boz, head of the antiillegal trafficking department at Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, said in a statement that “the longstanding dispute over this issue has separated Marcus Aurelius from his hometown for far too long.”

The Cleveland museum says its policy is not to publicly discuss “whether a claim has been made,” but rather that it “takes questions regarding the provenance of works very seriously and carefully considers claims for objects in the collection.” Prosecutors estimate that the work is about 1,800 years old and is worth $20 million (around R$98 million).

Last year, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Division seized artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum, Fordham University’s Museum of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Art and the Worcester Museum of Art in Massachusetts as part of its investigation into the Turkish claims.

The seized works include stone and bronze statues dating from a time when the area that is now Turkey was part of the Roman Empire.

Turkey’s claim to the statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Cleveland Museum depended in part on convincing investigators that the statue actually depicted the emperor: the stone pedestal where Ankara says the piece stood has the name of the historical figure engraved.

The Cleveland Museum’s website until recently described the statue as “The Emperor as Philosopher, probably Marcus Aurelius (r. 161180 AD),” adding that the object came from “Turkey, Bubon (?) (in Lycia), Roman, late” came from the 2nd century”. In a description accompanying the statue, they also wrote that it “probably depicts Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor known for his philohellenism and Stoic writings.”

But a few weeks ago, the museum removed previous references to Turkey and the emperor and changed the description on its website to “Clothed male figure, 150 B.C.E.” It also changed the wording of the description accompanying the work to “without head, inscription or other attributes, the identity of the depicted figure remains unknown”.

Asked about the changes, a museum spokesperson would only say that other information on the website, such as a list of locations where the statue was previously displayed, remained the same.