A HEADLESS bronze statue that is more than 2,000 years old and worth $20 million is at the center of a legal fight between the Cleveland Museum of Art and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who has led a crackdown in New York on stolen antiquities he wants returned to their countries of origin.
The piece, titled Draped Male Figure, was held by the Cleveland museum since 1986, but it was seized by Mr. Bragg’s office in August as part of an investigation into more than a dozen pieces of artwork and antiquities looted from an archaeological site in Bubon in Turkey in the 1960s.
The museum, which says it acquired the statue from an art gallery in New York in 1986 for $1.85 million, sued Mr. Bragg on Thursday last week in federal court in Ohio to regain possession, arguing that available evidence was insufficient to connect the sculpture to Turkey. Bragg wants it repatriated.
In its complaint, the museum said it “does not question that the New York District Attorney sometimes gets it right and returns true stolen property to foreign nations. Based on the evidence adduced thus far and the opinions of experts available to the Museum, this is not one of those times.”
The dispute comes more than a decade since the government of Turkey asked museums in the US to return dozens of artifacts and works of art it claims were stolen from archaeological sites. Since Bragg took office last year, his office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit says it has recovered and returned more than 1,000 items valued at more than $217 million to 27 countries.
“We are reviewing the museum’s filing in this matter and will respond in court papers,” said Doug Cohen, a spokesman for the district attorney.
Todd Mesek, a spokesman for the Cleveland museum, said it “takes provenance issues very seriously,” but declined further comment on the litigation.
Draped Male Figure is believed to depict Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, and was probably sculpted between 150 BCE and 200 CE. The statue is a male figure wearing flowing robes, with one arm in front of his body and the other tucked behind his back.
The piece was seized “in place” in August, meaning the physical statue remains at the museum — but not on display. In the lawsuit, lawyers for the museum asked a federal judge to declare the museum to be the lawful owner of the piece.
The case is Cleveland Museum of Art v. Alvin Bragg, 23-cv-02048, US District Court, Northern District of Ohio (Eastern Division). — Bloomberg