Italy says ancient statue in U.S. museum was stolen, not lost at sea

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Italy says ancient statue in U.S. museum was stolen, not lost at sea
The “Doryphoros,” an ancient replica of a treasured Greek statue at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, May 13, 2022. A court in Italy has ordered the return of the classical antiquity that was purchased by the museum almost four decades ago. Jenn Ackerman/The New York Times.

by Elisabetta Povoledo

TORRE ANNUNZIATA.- The account has long been that a shipwreck in the ancient past had sent a precious Roman marble statue — a rare copy of a fifth century B.C. depiction of the “Doryphoros,” or spear bearer — into the depths of the seas off Italy.

That was the account given in the late 1970s when the statue materialized out of the blue at the Glyptothek in Munich, the city’s museum of ancient Roman and Greek art. A dealer had lent it to the museum in anticipation of a possible sale, and the story he told then was of a statue that had been rescued from the ravages of seawater and held in a private collection, where for decades it escaped attention.

And that was the account endorsed by officials of the Minneapolis Institute of Art when they purchased the statue for $2.5 million in 1986 and installed it as a signature artifact in a showcase gallery.

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

What is more, prosecutors say, there is evidence that even before they bought the statue, officials at the Minneapolis museum knew that there were reservations about the origin story but still moved ahead.

“They sure had some doubts,” said Nunzio Fragliasso, the chief prosecutor of Torre Annunziata, a city south of Naples, Italy, where investigators have reviewed correspondence between the Minnesota museum’s staff members from the time of the purchase.

In January, an Italian judge, working off evidence presented to him by the prosecutors, ruled that the museum had to return the statue 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 officially notified of the Italian court’s decision and that it has “always conducted research on acquisitions, including requesting feedback from outside scholars.”

The object of all of this attention is one of the few ancient copies of a revered original by the Greek artist Polykleitos, which has long been embraced as one of the most important works of Classical antiquity, celebrated as an example of a perfectly proportioned body (detailed by the sculptor in “The Canon,” a companion treatise to the statue). Of the copies that exist, the one in Minneapolis, thought to have been created between 27 B.C. and A.D. 68, is considered one of the best preserved.

The statue had been offered to the Munich museum for sale while it was on loan there. At the time, the statue was labeled “Doryphoros aus Stabiae,” a reference to the ancient city on the Gulf of Naples that presumably identified as its original home. The piece was being handled by Elie Borowski, an antiquities dealer and collector who later founded the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem and died in 2003.

As the German museum raised money to buy the piece, the Italian news media dug into its provenance. In 1980, the national broadcaster, RAI, aired a report that suggested that the statue had been unearthed in 1975 or 1976 while construction work was going on in an area of modern-day Castellammare di Stabia. The report featured four photographs, said to have been taken soon after the statue’s discovery, that when compared to the statue — down to broken and missing pieces including part of a foot — appeared to be a match.

In 1984, Italian judicial authorities ordered the seizure of the statue — still at the museum in Germany — a decision that Munich judicial authorities revoked the following year.

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

In 1986, the Minneapolis Institute of Art bought the statue, and its chief curator at the time repeated the account from Borowski, who said the statue had been in private hands since the 1930s, when it had been found at sea, off the coast of Italy.

Over the years, the issue of the statue’s origins has resurfaced. Archaeologist Mario Pagano said in an interview that he had raised the provenance issue with officials at the Italian culture ministry around 2001, when he was the director of the Stabiae site, part of the ancient city also buried by Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

Italian officials did convene an inquiry around that time, but they never made a formal restitution request to the Minneapolis museum.

Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, was a leading curator at the Minneapolis museum during a time, from 2009 to 2015, when the statue had already become an established part of the collection. Schmidt said in an interview that he was told that museum officials had been contacted by Italian police about the statue a few years before his tenure there.

“The museum said, ‘Oh, yes, please come here. Let’s see what we have. Let’s look at it together,’” Schmidt recalled in an interview. But months passed, letters went back and forth, and in the end nobody showed up, he said.

Schmidt said the museum’s policy on provenance disputes was to be forthcoming, citing a medieval silver reliquary it had returned after learning it had been stolen. The museum was also one of several to comply with an Italian campaign in recent decades to reclaim artifacts, returning an Attic red-figure vase it had acquired in 1983.

Schmidt said that during his time at the museum, he had been in contact with Italian officials and scholars as part of his job, and questions over the statue’s past never arose.

But about three years ago, the statue again fell into the sights of Italian investigators as they pursued an unrelated review of frescoes Borowski had handled. The investigators dredged up a substantial file on the Doryphoros that dated back to the 1980s and that had grown larger over the decades.

“Reviving the old investigation, we came across extensive correspondence between staff members at the Minneapolis museum,” Fragliasso said, “not only about their fundraising efforts but also about verifying the legitimacy of the provenance of the statue.”

At the very least, he said, officials at the Minneapolis museum were aware of the statue’s murky origins, including the claims that it had been illegally excavated and that the Italians had asked for the return of the statue from Munich in 1984.

In one undated letter in the file, he said, museum employees talk about the opinion of three archaeologists who express doubt that the antiquity had been found in the sea and refer to it as possibly “hot.”

In another memo, museum staff mentioned concerns about Borowski’s account, noting that it would have been hard for such a noteworthy sculpture to have remained undetected in a private collection for decades, prosecutors said.

Michael Conforti, who was chief curator at the Minneapolis museum at the time of the purchase, referred questions to the museum. But Conforti, who is director emeritus of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, did say in an email that he recalled that the museum had relied on the findings in the German court case about the statue from the early 1980s. The court, he said, had “found that there was no proof of discovery as once claimed” and that was “the factor that allowed us to make the purchase at the time.”

Italian officials say that, while the German court refused to order the statue’s return to Italy, it did not rule on the merits of the case.

Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the archaeological site at Pompeii, said experts had other reasons to doubt Borowski’s account — primarily, the condition of the statue itself.

“The statue doesn’t show signs of having been under salty seawater for a long time,” he said, citing the impact such corrosives would have had on the marble. “This comes from the land.”

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

In declining to comment, the Minneapolis museum acknowledged in an email statement that it had seen the press reports regarding the court’s decision. The museum, also known as MIA, said it would be premature to discuss the concerns raised by the Italian prosecutors.

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

If the statue were to be returned, officials have plans to exhibit it at the Libero D’Orsi Museum in Castellammare di Stabia, a new museum opened in 2020 that showcases works excavated from the ancient city’s villas, including frescoes that had been illegally excavated in the 1970s and that were later recovered by Italy’s art theft police.

Although the matter is being pursued by local prosecutors, Italian officials at the national level have also shown renewed interest in the return.

“I think there’s excellent proof that the statue was from Castellammare and that it was exported illegally,” said Massimo Osanna, an archaeologist and the culture ministry official responsible for state museums.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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