Italy says ancient statue in US museum stolen, not lost at sea

Torre Annunziata, Italy — It has long been believed that an ancient shipwreck held a precious Roman marble statue — a rare replica of a “Doryphoros” or spearman depicted in the fifth century BC — Sent into the depths of the ocean to leave Italy.

This is the late 1970s when the statue suddenly appeared in Glyptothek in Munich, the city’s museum of ancient Roman and Greek art. A dealer who lent it to the museum for a possible sale told the story at the time about a statue that had been rescued from raging seas and kept in a private collection that had gone unnoticed for decades.

that’s the account approved by officials In 1986, the Minneapolis Institute of Art purchased the statue for $2.5 million and installed it in the display gallery as an iconic piece of art.

But now Italian authorities are pushing the Minneapolis museum to return the work, claiming it was actually illegally excavated from a site near Pompeii in the 1970s.

What’s more, prosecutors say there’s evidence that Minneapolis museum officials knew there were reservations about the origin story even before they bought the statue, but moved on.

“They definitely have some doubts,” said Nunzio Fragliasso, the chief prosecutor of Torre Annunziata, a city south of Naples, where investigators reviewed communications between Minnesota museum staff from the date of the purchase.

In January, an Italian judge ruled that the museum must return the statue, based on evidence presented to him by prosecutors, on the grounds that it had been illegally excavated and exported from Italy.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art said in a statement that it had not been formally notified of the Italian court’s ruling and “has been conducting research on the acquisition, including asking for feedback from outside academics.”

The object of all this attention is one of the few ancient reproductions of the esteemed original by the Greek artist Polykleitos, long considered one of the most important works of classical antiquity, celebrate as An example of a perfectly proportioned body (described in detail by the sculptor in the “Canon”, which is the accompanying treatise for the statue). Of the extant copies, the Minneapolis copy is believed to have been created between 27 BC and 68 AD and is considered one of the best preserved.

The statue was sold to the Munich Museum when it was on loan. At the time, the statue was labelled “Doryphoros aus Stabiae”, referring to the ancient city on the Gulf of Naples, presumably considered its home.The piece was handled by antiquities dealer and collector Elie Borowski, who later founded the Biblical Land Museum in Jerusalem and died in 2003.

As German museums raised funds to buy the work, Italian news outlets dug deeper into its provenance. In 1980, the state broadcaster RAI aired a report that the statue was unearthed in 1975 or 1976, in the area where the modern castle of Castellammare di Stabia was being built. The report shows four photos, said to have been taken shortly after the statue was discovered, which appear to match when compared to the statue – from broken and missing parts, including part of a foot.

In 1984, Italian judicial authorities ordered the confiscation of the statue—still in a museum in Germany—a decision reversed by Munich judicial authorities the following year.

By then, Munich-based Glyptothek had decided not to buy the statue, partly because of the price and partly because of concerns from Italian authorities, according to testimony given by former and current Glyptothek employees to Italian investigators, prosecutor Fragliasso, last year. , said in an interview.

In 1986, the Minneapolis Institute of Art bought the statue, and the then chief curator repeated Borowski’s claim that the statue had been in private hands since the 1930s, when it was off the coast of the United States. found at sea. Italy.

The question of the statue’s origin has resurfaced over the years. Archaeologist Mario Pagano said in an interview that he raised the provenance question with officials at the Italian Ministry of Culture around 2001, when he was director. Stabiae’s websitepart of the ancient city was also buried by Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Italian officials did call an investigation around that time, but they never made a formal return request to the Minneapolis Museum.

Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, was the Minneapolis Museum’s chief curator from 2009 to 2015, when the statue was part of the collection. Schmidt said in an interview that he was told that Italian police had contacted museum officials about the statue a few years before his tenure.

“The museum said, ‘Oh, yes, please come here. Let’s see what we have, let’s see it together,'” Schmidt recalled in an interview. But months passed, letters came back and forth, and in the end no one showed up, he said. Schmidt said the museum’s policy on provenance disputes is coming, citing the return of a medieval silver reliquary after it learned of the theft. The museum is also one of several to comply with the Italian movement to recycle artifacts in recent decades, Return an Attic Red Figure Vase It was acquired in 1983.

Schmidt said he has been in touch with Italian officials and academics as part of his work at the museum, and questions about the statue’s past have never arisen.

But about three years ago, the statue again fell into the sights of Italian investigators following an unrelated scrutiny of the frescoes handled by Borowski. Investigators have unearthed an extensive archive of Dollyfrost that dates back to the 1980s and has grown larger over the past few decades.

“Resuming the old investigation, we encountered a lot of communication between staff at the Minneapolis Museum,” Fraliaso said, “not only about their fundraising efforts, but also about verifying the legitimacy of the statue’s provenance. “

He said at least officials at the Minneapolis Museum were aware of the statue’s unknown provenance, including claims it was excavated illegally and the Italians’ 1984 demand for the statue’s return from Munich.

In an undated letter in the document, he said, museum employees addressed the opinion of three archaeologists who expressed doubts that the antiquities had been found in the sea and said it may have been “hot.”

In a separate memo, museum staff raised concerns about Borowski’s account, noting that such a noteworthy sculpture would hardly have remained undiscovered in private collections for decades, prosecutors said.

Michael Conforti, who was the Minneapolis Museum’s chief curator at the time of the purchase, posed questions to the museum. But Conforti, dean emeritus of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, did say in an email that he recalled that the museum had relied on an investigation in a German court case over the statue in the early 1980s result. He said the court “found no evidence as it had been claimed”, which was “the factor that enabled us to make the purchase at the time”.

Italian officials said that while a German court declined to order the statue to be returned to Italy, it did not rule on the merits.

Experts have other reasons to doubt Borowski’s claims – chiefly the condition of the statue itself, said Gabriel Zuchtriger, director of the Pompeii archaeological site.

“The statue shows no signs of being in the salty water for a long time,” he said, citing the effect the corrosion could have on the marble. “It’s from the land.”

Last year, Fragliasso took his case to a judge in Torre Annunziata, who issued a ruling calling for the statue to be seized. In February, Fraliaso formally asked legal authorities in the United States to assist him in enforcing the judge’s order. But he is still processing paperwork that U.S. officials will use to evaluate his request.

The Minneapolis Museum declined to comment but acknowledged in an emailed statement that it had seen news reports about the court ruling. The museum, also known as the MIA, said it was too early to discuss the concerns raised by Italian prosecutors.

“Regardless of the information that may have been shared with you,” the statement said, “Mia has not been contacted by Italian authorities regarding the court’s decision. If the museum is contacted, we will review the matter and respond accordingly.”

If the statue is to be returned, officials plan to Libero D’Orsi Museum In Castellammare di Stabia, a new museum, just opened in 2020, showcases works excavated from villas in the ancient city, including frescoes illegally excavated in the 1970s that were later recovered by Italy’s art theft police.

Officials at the Italian state level have also shown renewed interest in the return, although local prosecutors are pursuing the matter.

“I think there is good evidence that the statue came from Castellammare and was illegally exported,” said Massimo Osana, an archaeologist and culture ministry official in charge of the National Museum.

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