Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Cleveland Apollo: Further Comments

Michael Bennett of the Cleveland Museum of Art has talked about the acquisition of the Cleveland Apollo (Rebecca Meiser, "An ancient Apollo statue landed in Cleveland and touched off an international outcry", Cleveland Scene, March 5, 2008).

Meiser repeats the "reported history" of the Apollo:
Hicham and Ali Aboutaam readily admitted to gaps in the Apollo's ownership record. From what they were able to determine, the statue was owned by a German family in the early 1900s. World War II forced them to flee, leaving their belongings behind.

In the 1990s, a surviving member returned to the family estate after the fall of East Germany. In the backyard lay a pile of debris. He could only make out the bronzed head of a young man, a sculpted hand, the outline of a lizard.

The man vaguely recalled seeing the statue in the garden as a child, but he knew nothing of its history. Believing the cost of repair would be greater than its value, he sold the statue to a Dutch dealer in 1994, who in turn sold it to another collector, who then sold it to the Aboutaams in 2001 with the understanding that he'd remain anonymous.
It could be true. But where is the certified documentation?

And are all the investigations about the Apollo compelling? Meiser reports:
The International Art Loss Register in New York, which tracks stolen art, found no claims on the piece.
But, as I have pointed out before, absence from the Art Loss Register does not signify anything when it comes to recently surfaced antiquities.

One thing is clear. There appears to be no evidence that the statue had spent time underwater and it thus looks like the Greek Government's claim that it came from a shipwreck is without foundation.

Meiser then reviews some of the cases of antiquities handled by the Aboutaams, though she does not note an Etruscan architectural terracotta that has been returned from Princeton, or the Italian claim that some of Shelby White's antiquities came from "the Aboutaam family, the owners of the Phoenix Ancient Art gallery". Meiser quotes Neil Brodie who said that he "would be acutely "suspicious" of anything that passed through the brothers' hands". In contrast:
Bennett dismissed the allegations. He'd been dealing with the brothers for years. In his experience, they'd been nothing but forthcoming and ethical.
If that is the case, what else has the Cleveland Museum of Art purchased from the brothers? Will the Cleveland Museum of Art make that list public? And, if transparency is important, there is every reason to place this information in the public domain.

Meiser also touches on the Italian Government's request for the return of other items.
During the trial of dealer Robert Hecht, the Italians cited eight pieces Hecht had sold to Cleveland.
A much longer list of requested returns includes some material that has been around for quite a long-time (see, for example,
Suzan Mazur, "Italy Will Contest Medea Vase At Cleveland Museum", Scoop.co.nz, October 9, 2006). Among the antiquities is the head of the emperor Balbinus from a marble sarcophagus (1925.945; gift of J.H. Wade) and a Roman silver cup from Vicarello acquired in 1966 (1966.371) but first known in 1866. But many of the other pieces have surfaced more recently and certainly after 1970.

Cleveland has apparently refused to comment on the Italian list, and seems to be taking a firm stand.
But talking to Bennett, one gets the sense that the museum won't be quick to wave a white flag. "Our policy is really straightforward," he says. "Anyone at anytime" can protest an item's status. And "If someone has information that proves [the piece was illegally purchased], the museum has an obligation to look at that evidence . . . The Cleveland Museum of Art wants to know as much as possible about the items in our exhibits."

At the same time, Bennett claims that all pieces are vigorously researched. Just because a dealer is charged doesn't mean all his deals were tainted. Hecht's case is ongoing.
But Bennett misses the point. Can the Cleveland Museum of Art be certain that the pieces in question had not been looted? What was the Museum's due diligence process? Are the pieces documented prior to 1970? Who sold them?

The Museum needs to make this information available.

1 comment:

livius said...

This is not specifically related to Clevand Museum of Art, but I couldn't help but notice the article also seems to underplay the results of the Medici warehouse raid.

They mention only that the police found photographs of looted objects, when in fact the warehouse was packed with actual looted antiquities. Hence the term "warehouse".

Overall, the article takes something of a gauze-wrapped approach to the issues.

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