Last month, the Metropolitan Museum handed a foot-tall marble sculpture of a bull’s head from the fifth century BCE over to the Manhattan district attorney. While researching the Greek sculpture last year, a Met curator voiced concern that it had been stolen from a government storage facility in Byblos during Lebanon’s civil war. The museum alerted the Lebanese government, which in turn called on US authorities to seize it. However, the collectors who bought it in 1996 claim they are the rightful owners and are suing both Lebanon and the district attorney for its return.
“Upon a Met curator’s discovery that this item on loan may have been stolen from government storage during the Lebanese civil war, the museum took immediate action,” Kenneth Weine, the Met’s spokesperson, told Hyperallergic in a statement. “We contacted the Lebanese government and the lender, we took the item off display, and we have been working with federal and state authorities, which recently involved delivering the Head of the Bull to the Manhattan DA upon its request.”
It’s the second such object of problematic provenance that the museum has surrendered to authorities in recent weeks — the other, a Greek vase from the 4th century BCE, is expected to be repatriated to Italy. But unlike the vase, the bull head statue is neither part of the Met’s collection (a private collector loaned it to the institution in 2010), nor is its rightful owner a completely clear-cut matter.
The Colorado-based collectors Lynda and William Beierwaltes bought the bull statue in 1996 from a dealer in London, paying more than $1 million for it, according to the New York Times. In 2010, they sold it to another collector, Michael H. Steinhardt, who loaned it to the Met. However, when Steinhardt learned that Lebanon was seeking to recover the artifact, he asked the Beierwaltes to buy it back. Now the Colorado collectors are suing both the Manhattan district attorney and Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities, claiming that there is insufficient proof the sculpture was stolen and that the statute of limitations for seeking its restitution is long past, among other claims. The object was first catalogued by a Swiss archaeologist during excavations in 1967 at the Temple of Eshmun in southwestern Lebanon.
“The Beierwaltes are bona fide purchasers with clean hands,” William Pearlstein, a lawyer for the couple, told the Times. “By contrast, for more than 50 years, Lebanon has failed take any action domestically or internationally to report any theft of the bull’s head.” The Beierwaltes are demanding that the bull’s head be returned to them, claiming that federal prosecutors who previously reviewed its provenance decided not to seek its restitution to Lebanon.
Sarkis Khoury, the head of Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities, told the Times: “We will do all we can to repatriate this item.”