Questions About Apollo

A stunning statue at the Cleveland Museum raises concerns about the acquisition of antiquities

Detail of the Cleveland Apollo Sauroktonos
Detail of the Cleveland Apollo Sauroktonos Image courtesy of Flickr user

It’s not every day that a work by Praxiteles, one of the most famous sculptors of ancient Greece, shows up out of nowhere. But that’s happened at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where a bronze sculpture of Apollo attributed to Praxiteles is prominently displayed at the entrance of its newly renovated Classical galleries.

Indeed, it was news when the museum acquired it several years ago. The New York Times reported that, if authentic, the statue would be “one of the most important ancient bronzes in an American museum.” It has become one of the most widely reproduced images of the Cleveland Museum since its major overhaul and expansion.

Meanwhile, the museum, along with numerous other institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty, has been asked by the government of Turkey to return allegedly looted artifacts, according to the Los Angeles Times. ”Twenty-one objects are being sought from the Cleveland Museum, which Turkish officials say has not responded to their inquiries. A museum spokeswoman declined to comment or release a list of contested objects,” the L.A. Times reported in March.

Apollo Sauroktonos (Apollo the Lizard-Slayer) is not among the items reportedly being requested by the Turkish government, but the controversy is likely to increase scrutiny of the museum’s acquisition practices.

The display of the Apollo raises a lot of questions, some of them troubling ones. In particular, is the statue really by Praxiteles, and just where did it come from?

To my mind, the statue is very likely by him, although the phrase “by Praxiteles” needs clarification and qualification.  The bronze portrays the god Apollo as a dragon slayer, although for some reason—the intent may have been humorous—the “dragon” is portrayed as a tiny lizard on a tree trunk. Pliny the Elder mentions that Praxiteles as a young man made a statue of this unusual subject, and the composition has long been identified through Roman copies, including marble versions in the Louvre and the Vatican, which were linked to Praxiteles by Adolf Furtwangler, the famous German archaeologist.

What’s extraordinary about the Cleveland statue is that it doesn’t seem to be a Roman copy.  While more research needs to be done, experts seem to agree that this statue looks like an original Greek cast from about the fourth century B.C.

Pliny doesn’t tell us who the statue by Praxiteles was made for, so we don’t know where it was located. It’s possible that the piece Cleveland acquired is the original statue mentioned by Pliny. I believe, however, it’s more likely a copy made just a little later, although still in the Classical, or Hellenistic, period, not under Roman rule. Greek bronzes are extremely rare, since they were generally melted down, and we don’t know much about when or how the Greeks made bronze replicas. In the normal “lost-wax” process used by the Greeks, you get only a single cast, because the clay mold is destroyed after the bronze is poured. But it’s believed that the studio of Praxiteles lasted for three generations—that it was continued by his son and grandson. Surely Praxiteles’s heirs had some way of producing replicas of works by their famous forebear, whether made from clay or wax models by his hand or from earlier bronze castings.

When we ask where the statue came from, we enter a strange shadow land of mysterious statements and dealings. The museum purchased the piece from the Geneva branch of Phoenix Ancient Art, a gallery owned by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam, who also maintain a showroom in New York. The Aboutaams will not reveal the person or persons from whom they bought it. This should have set off warning bells, since Switzerland is a hub for the buying, selling and transport of stolen antiquities.

The gallery did provide the name of a retired East German lawyer, Ernst-Ulrich Walter, who says he discovered the statue on his family’s ancestral estate in Lausitz, east of Dresden. This estate had been confiscated from the family after World War II. After Germany reunified in 1990, Walter filed suit and was successful in recovering the property. According to Walter’s account, as relayed by Michael Bennett, the Cleveland’s curator of Greek and Roman art, Walters found the statue around 1993 or 1994, lying broken on the floor of a building on this property.

Shortly after its alleged discovery, the statue was viewed by Lucia Marinescu, former director of the National History Museum of Romania. Marinescu concluded the statue was of Roman origin and she later published an essay making this proposal.

Nonetheless, Walter allegedly sold the statue as a 19th-century garden ornament for a mere 1600 deutsche marks (about $1,250). Remarkably, Walter says he does not recall the buyer’s name  and has no receipt from the transaction. Not until ten years later did the five-foot-tall Apollo reappear, in Switzerland, with no record of where it had been in the intervening years. Reportedly, the Cleveland museum received signed papers from Walter and Marinescu, but the museum has refused to make these papers public and neither individual responded to requests for interviews.

(Much of the information in this blog post comes from “Risky Business: Playing Fast and Loose With Suspicious Antiquity, the Ethics of Collecting and Public Trust at the Cleveland Museum of Art,” by Katie Steiner, Discussions, vol. 1, 2006. Among Steiner’s sources was an article by Steven Litt published September 12, 2004, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)

Why would Walter sell the statue as a garden ornament if it had the appearance of a broken archaeological fragment?  In particular, why did he do so if Marinescu thought it was Roman, which would make it worth 50 or 100 times the price he said he sold it for? Is it really credible that Walter does not remember anything about the person to whom he sold it, other than that he was Dutch?

To my way of thinking, the statue came from somewhere else. Why supposedly East Germany? Because when the Communist government collapsed, it placed much of what happened before that date into a sort of legal limbo.

On several occasions the Aboutaams have had their professional behavior questioned or had run-ins with the law. In 2003 the gallery agreed to return two ancient stelae that had been smuggled out of Egypt. Also in  2003, Ali Aboutaam was prosecuted in Cairo for alleged involvement in a smuggling ring for Egyptian antiquities and was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison. On June 23, 2004,  a day after the Cleveland Museum announced its purchase of the Apollo, Hicham Aboutaam pleaded guilty in a Manhattan court to a federal misdemeanor charge that he falsified customs documents associated with a silver rhyton (drinking cup) that originated in Iran. He was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.

One can twist and turn the facts in various ways, but I think that by any reasonable construction of the evidence, the Cleveland Museum has chosen to operate in an arena of ethically controversial activities.

The Greek government believes the Apollo came from somewhere in Greece. When the Louvre held an exhibition of the work of Praxiteles, the Greeks declared that they would withdraw their loans if the bronze from Cleveland was included. Consequently, the Louvre’s loan request to the Cleveland Museum was withdrawn.

But the statue could have come from somewhere else, since in the third century B.C. the Greeks had colonies in Italy, Spain, Africa and on the coast of the Black Sea in Turkey and the Crimea.

It will probably be a long time before we know—if we ever know—where the statue is originally from. While the purchase goes against the guidelines of the American Association of Museums, these guidelines are toothless—mere recommendations that carry no sanctions or punishment. To be fair, even if the museum did have reason to believe that the statue was stolen or smuggled, it’s not clear who it should give it back to.

Forward movement with cases of questionable provenance is generally very slow. In the case of the notorious Euphronios vase, for example, rumors were circulating within weeks of its purchase in 1972 by the Metropolitan Museum about precisely where it had been discovered in Italy—rumors that turned out to be correct. Nonetheless, it took nearly 40 years before the piece was returned to Italy, and no one has ever been prosecuted for the incident.

These cases have a way of making institutions more secretive. Recently, a faculty member in art history at Case Western Reserve (not me) asked to see the curatorial file on the Apollo statue but was refused. While this is well within the museum’s legal rights, it was the first time in his 40 years of teaching that such a request had been declined.

(The L.A. Times’s Ralph Frammolino wrote this piece for Smithsonian about the return to Italy from the Getty of an celebrated statue believed to be Aphrodite. His investigative reporting with Jason Felch on provenance controversies resulted in their book Chasing Aphrodite about the hunt for looted antiquities.)

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