Bronze statue of a nude male figure, Greek or Roman, Hellenistic or Imperial, circa 200 BCE.-circa 200 CE, Anonymous loan, 2011 (L.2011.4) (photo by Steven Zucker)

The place where an antiquity was found is significant in two ways. From a historical perspective, the “findspot” is often key to understanding the work’s ancient meaning — as an offering to a goddess left at a temple versus a family heirloom buried in a tomb, for example. From a modern perspective, the findspot helps determine what harm was done, and what laws, if any, were broken when it was removed from its original site. 

One might assume that museums would both welcome and share any findspot information about their antiquities. Surely museums want to fulfill their scientific and educational missions by giving the public the most accurate account of their artworks’ ancient meaning. And surely no museum wants to own works obtained unethically or illegally. But in fact, some US museums value the retention and growth of their collections to the near-exclusion of all other concerns. A close look at the findspot information provided and withheld in various museums for one dispersed group of looted artworks shows that some are willing to sacrifice their ethics and missions in order to avoid restitution claims. 

In May 1967, villagers in southwestern Turkey uncovered an extraordinary trove of high-quality bronze statuary at Bubon, an unexcavated Roman site. Rather than notifying authorities, two local brothers organized a looting operation. At least nine life-sized statues and many additional statue fragments were sold to a dealer in Izmir and then smuggled out of the country, defying Turkish laws vesting ownership of antiquities with the state. 

By the time Turkish authorities showed up at Bubon, all that remained were the ancient pedestals, inscribed with the names of Roman emperors and empresses, and a single statue: a headless, nude male figure of superb artistic quality, now in a museum in Burdur, Turkey. The site was likely a shrine for the worship of the emperor and his family, the “imperial cult.” Had its contents not vanished, it would have been one of the most stunning archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

Just a few weeks later, four spectacular, headless, male bronzes, three nude and one wearing a philosopher’s tunic, all about the height of six feet and five inches, appeared out of nowhere in the possession of Charles Lipson, a Boston art collector, who began showing them around in museums. More such pieces, including several bronze portrait heads, surfaced on the international market soon thereafter. 

The Emperor as Philosopher, probably Marcus Aurelius, circa 180–200 CE. Turkey, Bubon(?) (in Lycia), Roman, late 2nd Century. Bronze, hollow cast in several pieces and joined; overall: 76 inches. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 1986.5 (photo Elizabeth Marlowe/Hyperallergic)

Eventually, Turkish scholars connected the dots. Smugglers take care to cover their tracks, so the origins of Lipson’s bronzes at Bubon can never be a matter of complete certainty. But the timing, the similarities between Lipson’s statues and the one recovered at the site, and the extreme rarity of surviving ancient bronzes of this scale and quality make this the most likely explanation by far, as almost all scholars have recognized. In 1986, when the Cleveland Museum of Art purchased the clothed figure from the Lipson group, the press release and subsequent publications stated openly that it was part of a “group of Roman bronze figures and heads, believed to have come from Turkey” that represent various emperors and empresses, created for a temple of the imperial cult in the mid-2nd century. Likewise, when six of the pieces were featured in a 1997 touring exhibition of classical bronzes, the catalogue stated that they were “reported to be from Ibecik, ancient Bubon.” 

The violation of Turkish patrimony laws implied by that information was, at the time, a matter of little concern to the US art world. In the 2000s, however, public opinion about cultural property, heritage, and the art market shifted dramatically. This was the result of both the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003 and several high-profile criminal trials, which exposed the staggering scale of international trafficking. Hundreds of artworks from dozens of public and private collections were repatriated, and museums were forced to toughen their acquisition policies

Since then, museums with Bubon pieces have downplayed the association. The Cleveland museum’s webpage notes hedgingly that their statue is from “Turkey, Bubon (?).” But the essential, once-trumpeted contextual information about the other statues and the imperial cult is now entirely absent. Instead, both the webpage (with its four accompanying videos!) and the gallery label focus on the identification of the figure as the emperor and amateur philosopher Marcus Aurelius. This is presented as a clever deduction based on the statue’s high artistic quality and philosopher’s garb. But the rather more definitive evidence of the empty pedestal back at Bubon with Marcus Aurelius’ name? Unmentioned.

Other museums with pieces likely from Bubon, including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art, Getty Villa, Worcester Art Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, say little or nothing about the site in their public information. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art displays two pieces associated with Bubon, but avoids connecting them to each other lest this raises questions about their respective paths to the museum. While the webpage for a portrait of the emperor Caracalla acknowledges that the head is “possibly from Boubon,” both it and the gallery label distract us from the piece’s context with irrelevant biographical tidbits, such as where Caracalla and his father died. 

Fragmentary bronze portrait of the emperor Caracallaca, circa 212–217 CE, Roman. Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989. On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 169 (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Met’s other Bubon work is a prominently-displayed, headless, nude male figure that has been on loan to the museum since 2011 from an unnamed private collector. The label plays a deep game. It is unusually equivocal about the figure, identifying it as “Greek or Roman, Hellenistic or Imperial, circe 200 BC – ca. AD 200.” It states that the figure was formerly thought to match up with a bronze head in a museum in Copenhagen, and that the head is “believed to have come from a building devoted to the imperial cult at the small city of Bubon in Asia Minor.” However, the label continues, because the two do not, in fact, go together, the statue’s identity remains a mystery: “It may depict a god, a hero, a Hellenistic ruler, or a Roman emperor.” 

But as the Met surely knows, this statue was one of the four acquired by Charles Lipson in 1967, the group most closely linked to Bubon; it thus almost certainly depicts a Roman emperor. The Copenhagen head was only associated with Bubon because it was thought to belong to this statue, not the other way around. In this label, the museum not only pretends to know far less than they actually do, but deliberately misleads the public. This display at our nation’s most esteemed museum is, effectively, a laundering operation.

Such duplicity, and indeed any deliberate withholding of essential information about an antiquity’s context, betrays the museum’s scientific and education mission — the basis of its tax-exempt status. So does the possession of stolen goods. Museums cannot allow their desire to grow and retain their collections to undermine their duty to serve the public good or their basic ethics. No artwork is worth that cost. The only ethical path forward now is for the museums to collaborate — both with each other and with partner institutions in Turkey — to reconstruct the splintered and suppressed history of Bubon, both in antiquity and in the 20th century; to share the results with the public; and to accept whatever consequences may result.

Elizabeth Marlowe is an associate professor of Ancient & Medieval Art and museum studies at Colgate University. She is the author of Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman...