Ancient Roman bust seized from Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts

Authorities have seized an historic Roman bust {that a} Massachusetts museum owned for practically six a long time, after proof emerged that the piece had been looted, one in all a number of situations in current years of cultural establishments turning over objects due to moral considerations and a part of a wider crackdown on stolen artifacts.

The Worcester Art Museum, about an hour from Boston, mentioned in a statement final week that it had “transferred ownership” of the 2nd century bust “Portrait of a Lady (A Daughter of Marcus Aurelius?)” to the New York County district lawyer’s workplace so it could possibly be repatriated. A June search warrant from the New York County Supreme Court ordered the museum handy over the bust.

“Based on the new evidence” from investigators, “the Museum determined that the bronze was likely stolen and improperly imported,” the assertion mentioned.

“With its limited resources, the Museum has not been able to prioritize provenance research of its existing collection,” the museum mentioned in an emailed assertion, including that it is going to be hiring a provenance analysis specialist and “increasing its scrutiny of its existing collection.”

Experts imagine the bust, created between A.D. 160 and 180, got here from a big imperial household shrine in Turkey and depicts the daughter of an emperor — probably Marcus Aurelius or Septimius Severus. The museum’s wall textual content described the work as a “rare, life-size portrait,” and it’s valued at $5 million, courtroom paperwork say.

The switch is without doubt one of the newest developments in an ongoing investigation by the Manhattan district lawyer’s workplace right into a smuggling community involving antiquities looted from Bubon in Turkey and trafficked by means of New York.

The district lawyer’s workplace is thought for its Antiquities Trafficking Unit, which in line with a July release has repatriated greater than 950 antiquities stolen from 19 international locations since early 2022.

The investigation has turned up treasures throughout the japanese United States. The Cleveland Museum of Art lately had a $20 million headless bust of Marcus Aurelius taken by authorities, whereas the Metropolitan Museum of Art noticed two bronzes — depicting Septimius Severus and Caracalla and valued at greater than $26 million in complete — seized this yr, in line with search warrants. Artifacts had been additionally eliminated this yr from Christie’s and Fordham University, in line with the warrants.

Museums have come beneath heightened scrutiny in current years amid a worldwide reckoning over how collections are acquired. The motion has rattled establishments massive and small and uncovered the truth that many prized objects displayed in distinguished museums carry darkish histories of exploitation and theft.

The artifacts in the Bubon investigation will be part of an extended record of objects eliminated from museums and returned house due to both courtroom orders or nagging consciences — together with a number of Benin Bronzes, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, the Easter Island Moai statue and extra. (The British Museum continues to carry onto its Benin Bronzes and the Elgin marbles regardless of huge criticism.)

Alexandra Katherina Sofroniew, a professor who research historic Greek, Roman and Etruscan artwork on the University of California at Davis, mentioned in an e-mail that she is “heartened to see museums responding swiftly, sincerely and positively to repatriation requests,” however there may be “still a lot of work to do in terms of returning objects to their places and peoples of origin.”

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The Worcester bust, which stands about 21 inches tall, is notable for its massive scale, Sofroniew mentioned, noting that “it is relatively rare for bronze statues to survive from the ancient Mediterranean world,” as they had been usually melted down and reused in later years.

According to Sofroniew, the bust in all probability stood in what’s generally known as a sacellum, akin to a household chapel.

Women in historic Rome had extra freedoms than in different classical societies, and the bust displays “how the portrait and persona of a young Imperial woman could act as an inspiration, comfort or authority,” she wrote, likening the lady to “an ancient influencer.”

When the Worcester Art Museum purchased the bust in 1966, the seller mentioned it had been discovered in the Roman province of Lycia, present-day Turkey, the assertion from the museum mentioned. But investigators supplied new info early this yr, “prompting the museum to cooperate with the DA’s investigation of the object’s history of ownership.”

On a now-removed webpage, the museum listed controversial collector Robert E. Hecht Jr. in the work’s provenance. Hecht, who died in 2012, was identified for his doubtful gathering practices, significantly after he revealed that he had misled the Metropolitan Museum of Art concerning the provenance of a Greek vase. Valued at $1 million, the piece had come from native suppliers who dredged it up from historic tombs and smuggled it out of Italy.

A Washington Post obituary described Hecht as a “legendary but mysterious figure” whose “passion for ancient art overcame any questions about the destruction wrought by its illicit origins.”

Worcester Art Museum director Matthias Waschek mentioned in an announcement that the museum was “thankful for the new information” concerning the bust and is “committed to managing its collection consistent with modern ethical standards.”

“The ethical standards applicable to museums are much changed since the 1960s,” he mentioned.

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