DA Bragg's office seizes Ancient Roman bronze bust from Massachusetts museum that was looted from Turkey decades ago

September 9, 2023

When not investigating and indicting the former president, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg appears to have prioritized the recovery of ancient art and antiquities suspected of having been looted or stolen so as to be returned to their nation of origin.

It was recently reported that DA Bragg's Antiquities Trafficking Unit seized a valuable bronze bust from a Massachusetts museum that is believed to have been looted and stolen from Turkey in the 1960s, according to The Art Newspaper.

Authorities believe that the sculpture, which is valued at around $5 million, is a life-sized portrait of a daughter of Ancient Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, though there is some debate on that matter.

Multiple seizures part of "active criminal investigation" of alleged smuggling network

The bronze bust, entitled Portrait of a Lady (A Daughter of Marcus Aurelius?), was first acquired by the Worchester Art Museum in 1966 and is believed to have first been created in the second century AD.

That seizure from the Massachusetts museum came about a week after the Manhattan Antiquities Trafficking Unit had similarly served a warrant to seize a headless life-sized bronze statue from the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio that is believed to be the Ancient Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius himself.

Valued at around $20 million, the suspected headless statue of Aurelius and the bronze bust suspected to be his daughter are both believed to have originated at the same site in southwestern Turkey that was first discovered in the early 1960s but was soon looted and cleared of dozens of statues and other antiquities that were then sold and moved around the world, often by unsuspecting dealers unaware of the origins of the pieces.

A spokesperson for DA Bragg's office confirmed in a statement that the seizures in Massachusetts and Ohio were related as part of "an active criminal investigation into a smuggling network involving antiquities looted from Turkey and trafficked through Manhattan."

Massachusetts museum claims prior ignorance of bust's origin

The Art Newspaper noted that the Worchester Art Museum said in a statement that no claims had ever been made about the bronze bust until a warrant was served in June, and that "Based on the new evidence that was provided" to it, staffers determined "that the bronze was likely stolen and improperly imported."

It was also pointed out that at the time the museum first acquired the bust it had "conducted its own research" on the origins and found nothing amiss but now "acquires objects with greater diligence."

In a separate statement, museum director Matthias Waschek explained, "The ethical standards applicable to museums are much changed since the 1960s, and the museum is committed to managing its collection consistent with modern ethical standards."

Turkey first claimed pieces were stolen in 2012

Fox News reported that museum officials said that they believe the bronze bust was first created sometime between 160 and 180 AD and represents the daughter of either Marcus Aurelius or another Ancient Roman emperor named Septimius Severus.

Aurelius, who was also a famed Stoic philosopher who authored the much-studied "Meditations," ruled Ancient Rome from 161 to 180 AD, while the reign of Severus came shortly thereafter from 193 to 211 AD.

The Turkish government first made claims in 2012 about the Marcus Aurelius statue in Cleveland and other artifacts that it believed had been looted from its territory decades earlier but at that time had no real evidence to support the claims.

Meanwhile, The Art Newspaper noted that, according to DA Bragg's office, the Antiquities Trafficking Unit has recovered and returned thousands of previously stolen pieces to dozens of different countries that are collectively valued at more than $240 million since Bragg first took office.

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