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  • Camille Basso

Cleveland Museum of Art challenges seizure of €18m bronze statue

In 2012, Turkey published a list of 22 objects looted by Western populations and exhibited at the Cleveland Museum of Art in the United States. Eleven years later, in August 2023, a New York Supreme Court judge ordered the seizure of a nearly two-metre bronze statue from the institution. At the end of October, the Cleveland Museum of Art decided to sue the Manhattan District Attorney's Office over the seizure, which is estimated to be worth more than 18 million euros.

Photographie de la Figure masculine drapée, Musée de Cleveland
Draped male figure, Cleveland Museum

Many works of art are currently the subject of investigations into their provenance and the possibility of returning them to their country of origin. The colonial era and the conflicts of recent centuries have led to a great deal of looting, and some Western countries are now working to return these objects to their territories of origin. However, these initiatives sometimes go against the wishes of the museums and galleries from which the works are gradually being withdrawn.

This is the case of the Cleveland Museum of Art in the United States, which took legal action against the Manhattan District Attorney's Office at the end of October. The institution accuses the DA's office of having seized a bronze statue, without proving that it was stolen from Turkey. "The museum does not question that the U.S. Attorney for the District of New York is sometimes correct and returns objects that were actually stolen from foreign nations," said a press release. "But based on the evidence to date and the expert opinions available to the museum, this is not one of those occasions."

According to the archives, the museum acquired the bronze statue, Draped Male Figure, from the Edward H. Merrin art gallery in 1986, for more than €1.5 million. According to the institution, the Manhattan DA's documents "have failed to prove convincingly" that the sculpture was actually looted from Turkey. In fact, the Cleveland Museum of Art's lawsuit notes "uncertainty surrounding the identification" of the draped male figure as a looted object. The institution has requested clarification from the Turkish Consul General regarding its investigation into the 22 objects on display in their collections, but has not received a response.

This draped male figure is one of the Cleveland Museum of Art's "most significant works". Produced between 150 and 200 BC, it has been exhibited in a number of prestigious institutions in the United States, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (in the late 1960s), the Indianapolis Museum of Art (1971-1974), the Minneapolis Art Institute (1976-1980) and Rutgers University (in 1981). It currently remains in its usual location at the Cleveland Museum of Art, as the Manhattan district attorney's office has opted to "seize it in place", pending its official return to its country of origin.

The complaint filed by the Cleveland Museum of Art has been registered with the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. The institution hopes that a judge will declare its legitimacy as the owner of the statue and its official right to hold it. However, it also wants the Manhattan DA to acknowledge that it has wrongly seized the sculpture, and the Cleveland Museum of Art to obtain the right to return it on its own terms. The case has now been assigned to District Judge Charles Fleming, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.


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