Cleveland museum sues to block seizure of $20M headless statue

The Cleveland Museum of Art is attempting to block the seizure of a headless bronze statue that US investigators believe was once stolen from Turkey.

In a legal challenge filed last week, the Ohio institution said Manhattan’s District Attorney Alvin Bragg had provided “insufficient” evidence that the artwork had ever been looted — or even where it originated from.

The lawsuit comes two months after a New York judge issued a search warrant citing “reasonable cause” to believe the statue, which was legally acquired by the museum almost four decades ago, was stolen property. It was subsequently seized “in place,” meaning the artifact has remained in Cleveland as investigations continue.

Standing 6 foot 4 inches tall, the bronze statue was long thought to originate from the ancient city of Bubon, in what is now Turkey. In 2012, Turkey called on several US institutions, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, to return various items it believes were looted from the country during the 20th century.

Investigators, who value the statue at $20 million, say the work dates to the late 2nd century and depicts Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Until earlier this year, a catalog listing on the museum’s website appeared to concur, describing the statue as being of Roman origin and “probably” depicting Marcus Aurelius.

Now, however, the listing simply describes the item as a “draped male figure” of Roman “or possibly Greek Hellenistic” origin. The website entry has also been updated to remove reference to Bubon and to suggest that the object may date back as far back as 150 B.C.

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s court filing, seen by CNN, says that scholars have now cast “significant doubt” over previous claims about its identity and origins. The institution says research by its former curator of ancient art, Arielle Kozloff, questions whether the statue originated from Bubon, and that “any previously stated connection” to the ancient city was “mere conjecture.”

The museum also claims the statue may depict a philosopher or stateman other than Marcus Aurelius, such as his adoptive brother Lucius Verus or the playwright Sophocles. Identification is “virtually impossible” without the missing head, the filing added.

Describing the statue as “one of the most significant works” in its collection, the museum purchased the item from a New York art gallery for $1.85 million in 1986.

In its court filing, the Ohio museum said that Turkish authorities had approached it seeking information and documentation in 2009 and 2010, and that it “takes allegations of stolen art or antiquities extremely seriously.” But the institution argued that evidence provided by Bragg had “fallen short of persuasive proof” that the statue was stolen.

In a statement provided to CNN, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said it is “reviewing the museum’s filing in this matter and will respond in court papers.” The statement did not elaborate on its investigation but said: “The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has successfully recovered more than 4,600 illegally trafficked antiquities from numerous individuals and institutions.

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