The Case of the Missing Head: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Battle Over Bronze Statue’s Origin

October 26, 2023

No, this isn’t a Halloween-themed piece about the infamous Cleveland Torso Murderer from the 1930s, but an issue that is less sensational but far more contemporary — the quest to return looted art to its rightful owners. Although we might typically associate art repatriation efforts with the Elgin Marbles or Benin Bronzes, a lawsuit over allegedly stolen art is unfolding here in Cleveland.

The Purchase and Description of the Statue

In March 1986, the Cleveland Museum of Art purchased a statue from Edward H. Merrin, Inc., a New York art gallery, for $1.85 million. The bill of sale briefly identified the statue as “Figure of a draped emperor (probably Marcus Aurelius), Roman, late 2nd century A.D., bronze.” However, it was not certain who the statue represented, for the simple fact that the head was missing. It did not help that the statue’s provenance was also unclear, although the statue was generally believed to have come from Türkiye. Until recently, on its website CMA described the statue as “The Emperor as Philosopher, probably Marcus Aurelius (reigned AD 161–180), c. AD 180–200, Turkey, Bubon(?) (in Lycia), Roman, late 2nd Century,” consistent with the 1986 bill of sale (courtesy of the Wayback Machine). The statue became one of the star pieces of CMA’s extensive collection of Greek and Roman art and has been the subject of several scholarly articles, some of which questioned the attribution of the statue to the ancient Roman city of Bubon in Türkiye.

Turkish Inquiry and Repatriation Efforts

In 2009 and 2010, the Consul General for the Republic of Türkiye asked CMA for information concerning 21 objects in the museum’s collection, including the statue. CMA claims that it provided the requested information and that the counsel general made no further inquiry nor demanded the return of the statue. It’s safe to assume that Türkiye questioned CMA about the statue’s connection to Bubon. In 1967, a trove of high-quality bronzes was discovered at Bubon and illegally smuggled out of the country. Not long after, several spectacular Roman bronze statues appeared in the United States. The smugglers left behind the statues’ pedestals, one of which was inscribed with the name Marcus Aurelius, the emperor associated with CMA’s statue.

Repatriation Efforts by NYATU

Over the last decade, the New York County Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, or NYATU, has established a reputation for repatriating looted artworks and claims to have “recovered more than 4,500 antiquities stolen from 30 countries and valued at more than $410 million.” These aren’t typical criminal investigations, and generally there is no criminal prosecution; instead, the current holder of the artwork voluntarily relinquishes it for repatriation to the country of origin. In 2022, the NYATU began efforts to recover the Bubon bronzes, and in March 2023 Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., announced the return of twelve pieces to Türkiye valued at over $33 million, including several held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Seizure of the Statue and CMA’s Response

It appears that discussions with CMA regarding repatriating its statue must not have gone as well, and in August 2023 the NYATU obtained a warrant from a New York judge to seize the statue for repatriation to Türkiye. Also in August, CMA changed the description of the statue to “Draped Male Figure, c. 150 BCE–200 CE, Roman or possibly Greek Hellenistic,” removing the references to Bubon and Marcus Aurelius, and adding that “without a head, inscription, or other attributes, the identity of the figure represented remains unknown.”

CMA’s Lawsuit

On October 19, 2023, CMA filed suit in the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio against Bragg as the elected District Attorney for the County of New York. In the complaint, CMA argues that the statue could represent the Greek tragedian Sophocles or Roman emperors Lucius Verus or Marcus Aurelius, but that:

“without the head of the Statue, based on current knowledge, any identification is virtually impossible.”

CMA concludes that, based on the statue’s robes, it likely depicts a Greek philosopher and has not been proven to have any connection to Bubon. The complaint concludes by requesting that the Ohio court issue an order declaring CMA the rightful owner of the statue.

The statue is valued at $20 million, and CMA is not giving it up without a fight. The NYATU has said that it will respond to the complaint through a filing with the court.

The Cleveland Museum of Art is currently entangled in a legal battle over the origin of a headless bronze statue. KJK Corporate & Securities Practice Chair, Christopher Hubbert, provides an in-depth analysis of the ongoing dispute.