In recent art world news, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has turned over another antiquity to prosecutors in Manhattan after one of its curators had raised concerns about the ancient object after researching it last year. Prosecutors have taken custody of the ancient artifact, the head of an ancient marble sculpture of a bull, on loan to the Met Museum, due to concerns that it had been looted from a Lebanese storage area during the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s.
The prior owners of the 2,300 year old marble object claim they have clear title to the antiquity and have taken legal action against the prosecutors for its return. The prior owners are also pursuing legal action against Lebanon’s antiquities directorate in connection with a federal lawsuit in which they argue that “neither the Lebanese government nor the Manhattan prosecutors have offered convincing proof that the [antiquity] was stolen. The lawsuit also cites property rights, cultural patrimony laws, statutes of limitations and jurisdictional issues as grounds for the sculpture’s return to them.”
The prior owners purchased the artifact from an art dealer in London back in 1996 for over $1 million and then sold it to a collector in 2010 who is the current owner. The current owner loaned the antiquity to the museum that year, but has since asked the prior owners to take the artwork back and compensate him after becoming aware that Lebanon was disputing its provenance.
The prior owners’ attorney said in a statement that he and his clients believe the “district attorney’s position is ill-founded” and added that the prior owners are “bona fide purchasers with clean hands. By contrast, for more than 50 years, Lebanon has failed [to] take any action domestically or internationally to report any theft of the bull’s head.”
The Met Museum released the following statement: “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. 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 D.A. upon its request.”
The antiquity has a deeply rooted history. According to museum and Lebanese authorities, the artifact was “first catalogued in 1967 by a Swiss archaeologist excavating the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon, Lebanon. It is believed to be of Greek origin, was warehoused in the city of Byblos, the site of a looting spree in the 1980s.”
This is the second time in recent weeks that the museum has been asked to turn over an antiquity to prosecutors in Manhattan with different circumstances in each case. As discussed in our recent blog post last week, the Met Museum returned an ancient vase that it bought at auction back in 1989 due to concerns that it may have been looted from Italy.
For more information on this latest antiquity provenance dispute, see “Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors,” published online by the New York Times on August 1, 2017.