Thursday, 30 August 2007

Legless in Boston: reunited in Antalya?

One of the striking pieces of sculpture in the exhibition, Glories of the Past: Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection, was a marble "Statue of Herakles resting, perhaps contemplating Telephos" (no. 172). It seemed to be a second century CE copy of a fourth century BCE statue.

Unusually there were two owners. The sculpture was partly owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1981.783), and partly by Leon Levy.

The catalogue statued that Boston had been presented with this part of the fragmentary statue in 1981 by the Jerome Levy Foundation (established by Leon Levy). However this has now been clarified:
"Gift of Leon Levy and Shelby White and Museum purchase with funds donated by the Jerome Levy Foundation, 1981"

Although the exhibition catalogue provided no hint of a find-spot, it did speculate,
"The Levy statue (or group ...) might have stood in a small public building, such as an urban bouleuterion, or a gymnasium-bath complex ..."
The Herakles is incomplete. The lower part is missing. And we know where the legs are - the museum catalogue tells us:
"The lower part of this statue, now in the Antalya Museum, was excavated in the South Baths at Perge".

So when did the Levy Herakles torso surface? Again the museum presents the evidence:
"By 1981: with Mohammad Yeganeh, Bundenweg 7, 6000 Frankfurt/Main (said to be from his mother’s collection and before that from a dealer in Germany about 1950); half interest purchased by MFA (with funds provided by the Jerome Levy Foundation) from Mohammad Yeganeh, December 30, 1981; remaining half interest owned by Leon Levy and Shelby White; remaining half interest gift from Shelby White to MFA, January 21, 2004"

So in other words we are asked to believe that this torso was in the hands of "a dealer in Germany about 1950". There is clearly no certified documentation or the museum would not have used the telling phrase "said to be ..."

The legs were excavated at Perge in southern Turkey in 1980 (see short report). A three-dimensional model of the legs has now been created, in part to demonstrate the link. In 1992 a cast of the lower part of the body was shown to fit with the Levy torso (details given in Walter Robinson, "Getting to the bottom of split statue", Boston Globe, December 27, 1998 [archived]).

Fifteen wearisome years have gone by and the only changes to note are:
a. The MFA accepts that the Levy torso and the Perge legs come from the same statue.

b. The MFA now owns the Levy torso outright.
A due-diligence procedure (presumably what is published on the MFA website) shows that the secure trail ceases in 1981 when the upper part of the statue passed from the hands of Mohammad Yeganeh to the joint ownership of the MFA and Leon Levy. Is it a coincidence that the legs were discovered just one year before? Is the "word of mouth" evidence compelling enough to believe that the Levy torso was around in Germany in the 1950s? After all, one of the lessons from the antiquities returned from Boston to Italy in 2006 was that histories were indeed fabricated.

Could there be an alternative view? Could the torso have been found around 1980 but then bundled across international frontiers to surface in Frankfurt?

The MFA now has the opportunity to reunite the two halves of this statue. If we accept that this Herakles forms part of the "Glories of the Past", we also need to acknowledge that the intention of its sculptor was for it to be viewed and enjoyed as a complete work of art.

Has the time come for a reassessment of the MFA's position?


Dorothy King said...

I don't know of anyone who believes that the torso should not be returned to Turkey other than those with a direct vested interest (the MFA). I support the collecting of antiquities with a solid provenance, but although I am sure that Mr. Levy and Mrs. White bought this piece in good faith, it's time for it to go home.

As to faked provenances ... of course dealers will try it on. There are made up collections, and then there are dealers trying to add pieces to well known collections. There is a very worn Polykleitos torso that has been doing the rounds recently - it was last in California. The dealer is claiming it was ex Wilton but anyone with half a brain knows that Wilton pieces were a) very well catalogued (it's not in the catalogue), b) sold at a well known auction (it's not int he catalogue), and c) restored (oh, and the torso was never restored).

Although collecting is not evil, there are some very uscrupulous dealers out there who give collecting a bad name.

David Gill said...


Thank you for these comments. I try to avoid the word "provenance" as it means different things to different people.

What we are talking about is the "history" of this torso. When did it surface? Who handled it?


Dorothy King said...

Not entirely who the dealer was as it was a Works of Art (ie Renaissance sculpture and post) who asked me to look at it. I just saw a photo, and was not of the opinion that it was kosher because of the dodgy history so did not look at it and would not have anything more to do with it. It was about spring 2001, and this is all off the top of my head and may be false memory. This is was originaly bought off Robin Syme in the 70s. Then was in California around a pool, I think it might have been a gay man who collected similar torsos of various dates. I am pretty sure that Geoffrey Waywell went to see it so it must have been in London. He said it was genuine, but the history was very wrong / badly faked. Have not hear anything about it since, as although I am happy to help with pieces with good provenances (say 200 years) I am not with this sort of thing. It's been above ground for a while (unlike auction sculpture I've seen with grass still growing in the drill holes), but is not in any of the main books or articles on the type.

I'm not going to pretend to agree with you on everything, but great blog by the way.

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