This Ancient Roman Statue Embodies the ‘Perfect’ Man. But Was It Stolen?

Italy wants a Roman replica of “Doryphoros” in the Minneapolis Institute of Art returned

A perfectly proportioned marble man
This Roman copy of a Greek bronze depicts an idealized male figure.  Minnesota Institute of Art / Public Domain

Among the many treasures in the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) is a rare copy of the Greek masterpiece Doryphoros, or spear bearer—a statue of a perfectly-proportioned man. It was in the cargo of an ancient shipwreck and was saved from its watery grave in the early 20th century, then sold to an art dealer who sold it to the museum.

Or so the story went. Now, that provenance tale is under scrutiny by Italian authorities who assert the artwork was stolen by looters from its resting place in Stabiae near Pompeii. They’ve asked MIA to return the statue to Italy.

Per the New York Times’ Elisabetta Povoledo, an Italian judge ruled in January that the piece should be returned, and chief prosecutor Nunzio Fragliasso contacted U.S. legal authorities in February to assist with the restitution. Related paperwork is still being processed.

The statue in question is a marble replica of a lost fifth-century B.C.E. Greek bronze by the sculptor Polykleitos, who aimed to create a representation of a proportionately perfect man. It “is a work of exceptional historical and artistic value, unanimously recognized by the scientific world as the most precious Roman copy of the original Greek bronze,” and is of “inestimable value,” writes Marco Santoro in the Corriere del Mezzogiorno, per Google Translate.

Its creator was so enamored with proportion and balance that he wrote a treatise on it, and Doryphoros was designed to demonstrate Polykleitos’ artistic theories.

Summarizing Polykleitos’ view on beauty, the Greek physician and philosopher Galen wrote that it “consists in the proportions, not of the elements, but of the parts, that is to say, of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and the wrist … and of all the other parts to each other.”

Though the treatise has not survived, Roman copies of Polykleitos’ sculpture live on. Romans became obsessed with Greek art when they started conquering the ancient civilization around 200 B.C.E., and much of the civilization’s art involved copying Greek masterpieces.

The copy of Doryphoros in question, believed to have been created between 27 B.C.E. and 68 C.E. by an unknown Roman copyist, was allegedly lost until the 1930s, when an individual discovered the statue in the waters off the coast of Italy.

That was the story art dealer Elie Borokowski told Munich’s Glyptothek museum in the late 1970s when he gave them the work on loan, claiming that it had previously been in a private collection for decades. Borokowski hoped lending the statue might entice the museum to buy it—a hope nearly realized a few years later when the Glyptothek began fundraising to purchase the piece.

By that time, though, Italian authorities and news media had become suspicious about the artwork’s provenance. Claims it had actually been discovered during a construction project in the mid-1970s led Italian judicial authorities to order its seizure in 1984. A German court reversed that ruling, but by that point the Glyptothek had backed out of the deal.

Instead, apparently reassured by the German ruling, MIA paid Borokowski $2.5 million for the statue in 1986. Italian officials say that the museum shouldn’t have viewed the ruling as a definitive decision on provenance.

Now, investigators tell the Times they have evidence museum officials had concerns about whether Borokowski legitimately acquired the piece. “Reviving the old investigation, we came across extensive correspondence between staff members at the Minneapolis museum, not only about their fund-raising efforts, but also about verifying the legitimacy of the provenance of the statue,” Fragliasso tells the New York Times.

Borokowski, who died in 2003, was long subject to accusations he collected stolen antiquities. In 1992, for example, the Baltimore Sun’s Doug Struck reported that Borokowski did not reveal the sources of his acquisitions. Johns Hopkins University was supposed to help him fund and operate his Jerusalem Bible Land Museum, but abruptly backed out of the deal after questions about his dealings arose.

The 6-foot-tall copy of Doryphoros in the MIA is the best-preserved of the remaining copies, according to Artnet News’ Sarah Cascone. Two other copies that were excavated at Herculaneum and Pompeii are at the Naples National Archaeological Museum; a copy was found in 2012 in the ruins of an ancient Roman bathhouse in southern Spain. Florence’s Uffizi gallery also has a partial torso.

The MIA’s Doryphoros has pride of place at the museum and is displayed prominently in its second-floor rotunda. Its excellent condition has always raised suspicion among art experts, per the New York Times, as the salt in seawater can erode and pit marble, whereas archaeologists are still recovering perfectly preserved artifacts that survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Pompeii in 79 C.E.

Italian authorities are now taking a second look at pictures taken shortly after the statue’s excavation. Discolored and covered in dirt, the statue can clearly be seen missing its left arm, its right foot, and a finger on its right hand—the same parts missing on the Doryphoros in the MIA, Positano News reports.

The MIA declined to comment to multiple news organizations, saying that had yet to be contacted by Italian authorities connected to the case, so it would be “premature” to discuss the situation. “If the museum is contacted, we will review the matter and respond accordingly,” the MIA said in a statement to Artnet News.

Should the controversial spear bearer be returned, Italian officials say they’ll put him on display at the Libero D’Orsi Museum in Castellammare di Stabia—a new museum that focuses on antiquities excavated from the ancient city of Stabiae.

Editor’s Note, May 27, 2022: This article has been updated to include an image of the Doryphoros sculpture in MIA’s collection.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.