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The Battle for Emperor Aurelius: Cleveland v. Turkey

Cleveland Museum’s Roman art exhibit altered amidst ongoing legal battle over 21 artifacts
Emperor Marcus Aurelius Statue, Now Titled Draped Male Figure, Part of Ongoing Legal Battle Over Stolen Artifacts at Cleveland Museum of Art
Erik Drost
Emperor Marcus Aurelius Statue, Now Titled ‘Draped Male Figure,’ Part of Ongoing Legal Battle Over Stolen Artifacts at Cleveland Museum of Art

Statue of a Headless Roman Woman next to a completed replica, 27 July 2016

As of September, guests of the Cleveland Museum of Art have been treated to a Roman exhibit more sparsely populated than usual. Not for a lack of visitors, as the museum is enjoying its pre-holiday traffic as usual, but due to the absence of 21 pieces of Roman art.

The keystone piece, a supposed headless statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was pulled and, even on their website, has changed the title of the work for the “Emperor Marcus Aurelius” to simply “Draped Male Figure.”

All of these changes are the result of a long battle between the piece’s countries of origin and the U.S. judicial system and, as of now, it seems like the nations from which the piece originates are finally winning.

According to The Art Newspaper an unusual collection of pieces hit the American Historical art market starting in the 1960s. Writer and Professor of Art and Museum Studies at Colgate University Elizabeth Marlowe wrote that “between the 1970s and 90s, Turkish and American scholars attempted to reconstruct the dispersed Bubon group. Recently, the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, in partnership with Turkish authorities, renewed the investigation.”

In August, to answer these concerns of stolen history, New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg started the seize and repatriate the first of many artifacts from the Bubon group, which were taken from Turkey, likely without the proper consent of the Turkish government.

In response, the Cleveland Museum of Art sued the New York Attorney’s Office and, as of the date of publication, this has allowed the 21 pieces in the museum to stay in local hands. To attract less attention though, they now are in storage and, in the case of the statue of Emperor Aurelius, are going under new names.

John Carroll’s Aidan Hulseman ‘25 and Maddie Jarosz ‘25 visited the museum this weekend but were unaware of the legal battle. Yet they did notice a change in the exhibits.

“I really enjoyed the paintings and statues and was amazed with how well they were kept up” Husleman said, but “I feel like I wanted more out of the Roman exhibit”.

Jarosz concurred, mentioning that “I’ve seen that statute before and, now that I look back, it was so strange that it was gone”.

That’s an emotion perhaps many Clevelanders are feeling, as since 1986, the piece has been the highlight of the Roman exhibit if not one of the treasures of the museum. Overall though, this battle as it is seen right now is not a new unique one. The LA Times reported that pieces from the Getty Collections, the Met, the Harvard Art Museum and a multitude of other sources have all been tapped for repatriation in regard to illegal transport to the U.S.

The LA Times looked to Turkish sources in their assessment of the situation where they mentioned that they “did not want to fight” but are seeking “cooperation” from American Museums. They wish to have a piece of their history, ancient as they are, returned to their nation to be displayed and enjoyed by the people on whose ground it was found. Unfortunately, if that means Cleveland will lose an emperor, that might be the cost of justice. Until the end of proceedings, Cleveland will hold onto Marcus Aurelius, and the battle for ancient art will continue.

Attribution: Erik Drost

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