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Cleveland Confiscation: More Antiquities Seized

September 6, 2023
A headless ancient Roman bronze statue of a man in a toga formerly held by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Emperor as Philosopher, possibly Marcus Aurelius (now called Draped Male Figure)

In April, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York wasn’t having a particularly good time, especially after the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office seized many items from its antiquities collection. It is believed that, in the 1960s, local farmers looted most of these items from an archaeological site in southwestern Turkey, the site of an ancient Roman shrine dedicated to the imperial family. These pieces included a bronze statue of the emperor Septimius Severus and a bronze bust of his son Emperor Caracalla. Investigators have now discovered another major work originally from that site at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

When the Cleveland Museum acquired the work in 1986, its specialists gave the headless bronze sculpture the name The Emperor as Philosopher, possibly Marcus Aurelius, dating it to the second or third century CE. Since then, it has been one of the highlights of the museum’s Greco-Roman art collection. Specialists estimate the work to be worth around $20 million. In 2012, the Turkish government first made American authorities aware that the statue had been stolen. But the Cleveland Museum, despite claims of taking provenance issues “very seriously”, has avoided sending the bronze back to Turkey by claiming there is no hard evidence it was looted. But in this case, Turkish authorities have ended up using the museum’s statements against them. The museum’s description of the work includes it possibly being a statue of Marcus Aurelius, and that it likely came from the ruins of the ancient city of Bubon, which contains the looted archaeological site. At Bubon, the name of Marcus Aurelius is inscribed on a stone plinth, upon which a bronze statue likely stood. Turkish authorities claim that the Cleveland statue is the one that used to stand there. The Cleveland Museum, however, has decided to completely change and cover up some of the information they had so loudly and proudly leaned into. In an attempt to swipe all the dirt under the rug, the museum has changed the statue’s name in its catalogue to Draped Male Figure, and has also completely erased any mention that it likely came from Turkey. So, the statue is Marcus Aurelius when it comes to attracting new visitors, but not when it needs to go back where it came from?

About two weeks ago, a Manhattan judge agreed with Turkish authorities, signing a warrant ordering that the statue be seized. Authorities executed the warrant on Thursday, In their investigations into the smuggling ring that brought these works to the US from Turkey, the Manhattan DA’s office has also confiscated works from other museums and institutions. Investigators seized a bronze head of Emperor Caracalla as a young man from Fordham University’s Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art, valued at $750K. More recently, at the Worcester Art Museum just this past weekend, authorities confiscated a bronze bust of a lady worth about $5 million, thought to be one of Marcus Aurelius’s daughters. These museums were far more cooperative than the Cleveland Museum, turning over the items in question as soon as they were able.