CLEVELAND (WJW) — Though New York authorities allege a $20 million statue that’s been a prized part of the Cleveland Museum of Art collection for more than three decades is a stolen antiquity, the museum remains unconvinced and has sued for the return of the “unique and irreplaceable work of art,” court documents show.
The headless bronze sculpture dating back to the second century is dubbed “the Philosopher.” It’s believed to depict a Roman emperor or a Greek playwright — but without its head, that remains unclear.
It’s “one of the most significant works in the museum’s collection,” reads the museum’s civil lawsuit against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, filed Thursday in Ohio’s Northern District federal court.
The statue itself remains at the museum, though it has been “seized in place” by the DA’s office.
Where did it come from?
In August, Bragg’s office executed a warrant to seize the statue, believing it was looted from Bubon — an ancient site in southwestern Turkey — and trafficked through Manhattan. That warrant suggests the museum could be charged with possession of stolen property in the first degree, or conspiracy of that crime.
A museum spokesperson that month issued a statement to FOX 8 News that read, in part:
The Cleveland Museum of Art takes provenance issues very seriously and reviews claims to objects in the collection carefully and responsibly. We believe that public discussion before a resolution is reached detracts from the free and open dialogue between the relevant parties that leads to the best result for all concerned.Cleveland Museum of Art press officer Todd Mesek
The museum bought the statue for $1.85 million from a New York art gallery in March 1986, and was assured the seller was its lawful owner. It’s been on display in the University Circle museum since then, and “heavily studied” by scholars looking to determine its true origin.
In the following year, the museum dove into the work’s ownership history — called its “provenance.” The museum’s ancient art curator at the time questioned whether the statue originated in Bubon or whether it had been moved there. She determined any connection the statue may have had to the Turkish site “was mere conjecture,” the lawsuit reads.
Who does the statue depict?
Though Bragg’s office claims the statue depicts Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, experts have told the museum it’s more likely a sculpture of Sophocles, a Greek writer of tragedies, according to the lawsuit.
An archived version of the museum’s dedicated web page for the statue, captured on March 25, 2023, titles it “The Emperor as Philosopher, probably Marcus Aurelis (reigned AD 161-180)” and lists its origin as “Turkey, Bubon(?).”
The extremely high quality and monumental scale of this bronze draped figure suggest that it is an imperial portrait. Unusually, however, the pose and dress resemble those of a Greek philosopher rather than a Roman statesman (wearing a chiton and himation rather than toga). For these reasons, even without a head to confirm the identity, scholars have suggested this likely represents Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor known for his philhellenism and Stoic writings.Cleveland Museum of Art website | March 25, 2023
However, another archived snapshot of the same web page from Aug. 12 — two days before Bragg’s seizure warrant was filed — titles the piece as “Draped Male Figure.” It’s absent any mention of Marcus Aurelius in the final sentence.
“Thus, without a head, inscription, or other attributes, the identity of the figure represented remains unknown,” the description was changed to read.
DA’s office returns looted antiquities
Bragg’s office operates a special unit that works to return stolen or looted antiquities to their home countries. There are often “elaborate” repatriation ceremonies, attended by federal agents and foreign diplomats, which are regularly covered by New York media outlets, according to the lawsuit.
Some of the repatriated pieces have, in the past, come from the Cleveland Museum of Art, and were handed over voluntarily, without government intervention, according to the lawsuit.
“In this case, the evidence presented by the [Bragg’s office] has fallen short of persuasive proof that the Philosopher is, in fact, a piece of stolen property belonging to the Republic of Türkiye,” reads the lawsuit.
“[The museum] does not question that the New York District Attorney sometimes gets it right and returns true stolen property to foreign nations,” the lawsuit reads. “Based on the evidence adduced thus far and the opinions of experts available to the Museum, this is not one of those times.”
The museum’s lawsuit declares its rightful ownership of the statue and calls for the immediate return of the “unique and irreplaceable work of art.”
In a statement Thursday to FOX 8 News, DA spokesperson Doug Cohen said:
“The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has successfully recovered more than 4,600 illegally trafficked antiquities from numerous individuals and institutions. We are reviewing the museum’s filing in this matter and will respond in court papers.”
The case has been assigned to Ohio’s Northern District federal Judge Charles Esque Fleming. No future court dates have been set, according to the docket.
The museum declined to comment specifically on the litigation in a Thursday statement:
“The Cleveland Museum of Art takes provenance issues very seriously, as is apparent both from our long track record of engagement around cultural property issues and the forthright way that works are interpreted in our galleries.”