The Cleveland Museum of Art Acquires 2 Antiquities

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A Roman bust of Drusus Minor

Last week the Cleveland Museum of Art announced that it had acquired these two antiquities. Both are, based on the pictures, quite beautiful. And certainly would be objects one one expect to see at a museum. The problem with them though is we don’t know nearly enough about where they have come from, which means there is a very good chance they may have been looted from their context, stolen, or perhaps even fakes. And given that the museum returned 13 antiquities in 2008, and Turkey has also pressed repatriation claims, one would have thought that the museum would have been cautious to acquire newly-surfaced objects with

The Drusus Minor head has been listed on the AAMD’s object registry site. It is a kind of clearing house where museums can place objects with limited histories and allow potential claimants to come forward. The problem of course is how can a nation know an object has been looted from its context. The site lists the country of origin for the object as “probably Algeria although could be anywhere within the ancient Roman Empire”. Here is the history of the object listed there:

The Cleveland Museum of Art has provenance information for this work back to the 1960’s, but has been unable to obtain documentary confirmation of portions of the provenance as described below. The work was sold at public auction in 2004 when it first appeared on the art market. The work was initially identified and published as Tiberius, but was later (after 2007) recognized as a likeness of his son, Drusus Minor. A certificate of origin was issued dated the day after the auction by Jean-Philippe Mariaud de Serres (deceased 2007), who assisted the prior owner and consigner, Fernand Sintes. The certificate stated the sculpture came from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Sintes of Marseilles; that the sculpture had been in Mr. Sintes’s family for many generations; that the family’s name was Bacri; and that they had lived in Algeria since 1860. The museum contacted Mrs. Sintes who confirmed on behalf of herself and Mr. Sintes that Mr. Sintes’ grandfather, Mr. Bacri, had owned the sculpture; that Mr. Sintes inherited the sculpture from his grandfather; that Mr. Sintes brought it from Algeria to Marseilles in 1960; that he had inherited it from his grandfather prior to bringing it to Marseilles; that the sculpture was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 2004; and that they had worked with Mr. de Serres. The portrait, monumental in scale and of great historical importance, belongs to a major category of Roman imperial portraiture not otherwise represented in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The acquisition of these objects-without-history has raised a great deal of attention. As David Gill notes, the earliest documented history of this object was 2004. And the rest of this history is I think little more than mere speculation, with very little solid evidence.

Rick St. Hilaire argues as much:

There is no explanation why the museum did not contact Fernand Sintes. There is also no information about Mr. Bacri’s first name, how he came to own the artifact, or if there was paperwork specifically describing that Fernand Sintes would inherit the marble head after his grandfather’s death. Did the museum seek out other family members or those in the Bacri family to get a more complete collecting history? That is not known.

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A glazed Mayan vessel

And of course the Mayan vessel has a history which only slightly predates 1970. It has appeared in photographs in New York in 1969. But that was the time when the sites in Central and South America were being pillaged on a grand scale. Beautiful objects of course, but what price has been paid for them.

  1. Randy Kennedy, Cleveland Museum Buys Antiquities, Stirs Ethics Debates, The New York Times, August 12, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/13/arts/design/cleveland-museum-buys-antiquities-stirs-ethics-debates.html (last visited Aug 23, 2012)
  2. Steven Litt, Cleveland Museum of Art buys important ancient Roman and Mayan antiquities The Plain Dealer – cleveland.com (2012), http://www.cleveland.com/arts/index.ssf/2012/08/cleveland_museum_of_art_buys_i.html (last visited Aug 23, 2012).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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