Cleveland Museum of Art will Return Stolen Roman Sculpture to Italy

Experts have long voiced concerns about origins of the portrait

The Cleveland Museum of Art Erik Drost (CC BY 2.0)

In 2012, the Cleveland Museum of Art announced that it had made a “stellar” acquisition: a monumental portrait head of Drusus Minor, the volatile son of the Roman emperor Tiberius. But this impressive marble sculpture was recently removed from its gallery and will not be placed back on display. As Steven Litt reports for The Plain Dealer, museum officials have decided to return the portrait to Italy, after determining that it was swiped from a provincial museum near Naples in the 1940s.

According to a CMA press release, when the museum first acquired the sculpture, it believed that the artifact had belonged to an Algerian collection since the 19th century. But the history of the sculpture’s ownership was called into question when a companion portrait came on the market. “[A]n Italian scholar maintained that the second head was illicitly removed during the World War II,” the press release says. “Following the discovery of this scholarship, the museum investigated the possibility that the sculpture might have a similar history.” 

With the help of the Italian Ministry of Culture, the CMA traced the sculpture to photographs taken at an Italian excavation site in the 1920s. Archaeologists working in the town of Sessa Aurunca had documented the sculpture and other discoveries dating to the Julio-Claudian dynasty of ancient Rome, including a portrait head of Drusus’ father Tiberius. The artifacts were placed in a local museum, but the sculpture of Drusus was “illegally removed” from the institution during WWII, according to the CMA press release.

Though the CMA only recently concluded that the sculpture had been placed on the market through illicit means, experts have long voiced concerns about its murky provenance. According to a 2012 New York Times article by Randy Kennedy, the work was first put up for auction in France in 2004, and had no publication record prior to 1970. The CMA’s acquisition of the portrait also raised eyebrows because it was sold by Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealer that has had some trouble with the law. In 2004, for instance, one of the company’s owners pleaded guilty to falsifying a document about the origins of an ancient drinking cup.

In 2014, Italian scholar Giuseppe Scarpati published an article theorizing that French troops stole the Drusus sculpture, along with the sculpture of Tiberius, from the museum in Sessa Aurunca in 1944. According to Litt, Scarpati also suggested that the portraits were eventually obtained by North African troops who were active in Italy, which may explain the Drusus portrait’s presence in Algeria, and the scholar requested the work be repatriated to Italy.

"It is disappointing, even devastating, to lose a great object," William Griswold, director of the CMA, told Litt. "On the other hand, the transfer of this object to Italy is so clearly the appropriate outcome that, disappointed though I may be, one can hardly question whether this is the right thing to do."

Drusus, born Drusus Julius Caesar, was Tiberius’ son and heir following the death of his adoptive brother, according to The Encyclopaedia BritannicaThe CMA writes that Drusus was a mercurial, violent figure, who alarmed his father with his zeal for gladiatorial bloodshed. He died at the age of 34, before he could claim the throne; according the ancient biographer Suetonius, the prince was poisoned by his wife. (For what it’s worth, Suetonius also notes that because Drusus led a “somewhat loose and dissolute life,” his father, who was still alive, was “not greatly affected” by his premature death.)

The sculpture of Drusus, which dates to the early first century A.D., was likely created posthumously, according to the CMA website. It is one of few surviving likenesses of the much-maligned Roman prince, which now, after a long period abroad, will finally return home.

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