American museums overtaken by ill-gotten Turkish bronzes

UNITED STATES. Exceptional bronze statues, a tenacious expert and a former Marine officer to investigate: the affair of the “Bubon bronzes” is very embarrassing for the American art world which has been living, for several months, at the pace of seizures as part of the investigation into Roman bronzes from southwest Turkey. Several major museums are involved, including the Museum of Art in New York (Met) where a statue of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus [voir ill.] was seized in February, then returned to Turkey. This headless statue has been on display since 2011 and is estimated at $25 million. Another bronze statue was seized from the Cleveland Museum of Art, probably a depiction of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in a toga [voir ill.]. The museum says it acquired it in 1986 from a well-known American art dealer, Robert Hecht, who sold at least four other statues in the same style and period. The Manhattan District Attorney’s (DA) office believes that these statues all came from the Bubon site, and that they were illegally imported into the United States. Colonel Matthew Bogdanos heads the unit in the Manhattan DA’s office in charge of the case. This Marine officer is known for having been, in 2003, the first to enter the Baghdad Museum a few hours after its looting. He then led investigations to find the stolen pieces, and specialized in the fight against trafficking in cultural property.

A site looted by villagers

Why is American justice interested in these statues today? Suspicions of looting date back several years, and Turkey has demanded the return of these statues on numerous occasions. It all started with a chance discovery in Bubon in Turkey at the end of the 1950s: farmers found a preserved site with a dozen pedestal statues representing Roman emperors and their families. According to Elizabeth Marlowe, professor of art history at Colgate University (Hamilton, New York), the villagers hid their discovery and sold the statues illegally. This Bubon specialist recalls in a recent article on the site Illicit Cultural Property that Bubon is unique in the world because it is a “sanctuary dedicated to imperial worship” with beautifully crafted bronze statues dating from the 3rd century AD. It indicates that “Villagers reported selling nine or ten bronze statues as well as heads, arms and legs.” Turkish authorities only learned of the site’s existence in 1967, by which time the statues had disappeared.

The alleged statue of Marcus Aurelius from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

At the same time, bronze statues from Turkey appeared on the art market from 1964, including several offered by Robert Hecht in the United States. The latter regularly supplied American museums with exceptional pieces, despite some legal disputes. Elizabeth Marlowe recalls that he had been expelled from Turkey in 1962 on accusations of looting and trafficking in antiquities… According to her, “it is possible that Hecht was behind the sale of the entire group of statues” of Bubo. It was also he who sold in 1970 a monumental bronze head to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, a head representing Septimius Severus which undoubtedly comes from Bubon and which is being studied by the DA’s office because it could be linked to the statue at the Met.

Clumsy denials from museums

Hecht having died, experts must now trace the provenance of the statues present in the collections of American museums. After the investigation was opened, the Cleveland Museum of Art suddenly changed the cartel and inventory notice for the statue of Marcus Aurelius, which became “draped male figure, 150 BC – 200 AD.” : a clumsy attempt to protect oneself from accusations, according to Elizabeth Marlowe. Similarly, the Worcester Art Museum denies any illegality in the acquisition of a Roman statue in 1966 while the DA’s office believes that “the work is probably stolen and was imported illegally” from Türkiye. According to museum director Matthew Waschek, “the ethical criteria and requirements of museums have changed significantly since the 1960s”. In a recent press release, the museum said it only discovered the origin of the statue when the investigation was opened. Elizabeth Marlowe expresses doubts because, as early as 1980, this statue was cited in a museum booklet as originating from Bubon. She emphasizes the character “shady and doubtful” by Robert Hecht who should have alerted the museum which, according to her, could not ignore the illicit origin of the statue.

The distinctive mark of the Bubon founders

In the same article, Elizabeth Marlowe draws up a list of distinctive criteria for the use of art historians and experts in charge of this investigation in which she also collaborates. She particularly emphasizes the exceptional character of the pieces, because “statues of this type are extremely rare” on the art market, since bronze was often remelted to make coins or weapons. She adds that we must monitor the statues that appeared on the market between 1964 and the early 1970s, as well as the absence of documents proving that the pieces were taken out of Turkey legally. Finally, she points out the presence of marks on the Bubon bronzes: small squares on the connecting lines of the different parts of the statues are the signature of the Bubon foundry workshops. This is what makes him say, for example, that the head of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek comes from Bubon, since squares are visible at the base of the neck. In addition to American and European museums, several private collections are affected by the investigation. It is likely that other seizures will take place soon as the DA’s office announces it is expanding its investigations.

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