In recent art world news, and further to our recent blog post on the Met Museum’s return to authorities of an ancient artifact on loan due to concerns that it had been looted from a storage area during the civil war in Lebanon, the prior owners of the 2,300 year old marble sculpture of a bull’s head have since dropped a federal lawsuit seeking to prevent the Manhattan district attorney’s office from returning the artifact to the Republic of Lebanon. The prior owners, a couple from Colorado, had asserted that they bought the artifact in good faith in excess of $1 million in 1996, but after having been “presented with incontrovertible evidence that the bull’s head was stolen from Lebanon, the [couple] believed it was in everyone’s best interest to withdraw their claim to the bull’s head and allow its repatriation to Lebanon.”
In a latest twist, however, prosecutors are now pursuing the return of a second ancient artifact, an archaic marble torso of a calf bearer, to Lebanon that was discovered while they were reviewing a profile of the couple in the June 1998 issue of House & Garden magazine. The artifact was later sold by the art collector couple to a collector in New York. The district attorney’s office has obtained a warrant to seize the artifact.
The couple had also sold the bull’s head sculpture to the same collector in New York who in turn loaned it to the Met Museum. After learning about the provenance dispute, the collector in New York requested the couple to take back the work and refund his money.
The couple had sued the district attorney’s office and the Lebanese government this summer claiming that they had clear title to the bull’s head artifact and demanding its return. The district attorney’s office, however, produced evidence that the antiquity had been “discovered during a state-sponsored excavation in 1967 at the ancient Temple of Eshmun in Sidon, Lebanon. The [work] had been put in storage after its discovery and then was stolen in the summer of 1981 during the Lebanese civil war.” The artifact later came into the possession of Robin Symes, a British antiquities dealer, who had sold it to the couple.
The district attorney’s office has said that the investigation continues even though the bull’s head will be released without the couple or any other individuals being the subject of criminal charges. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. issued a statement this week that said:
The art world must acknowledge that stolen antiquities are not simply collectible commercial property, but evidence of cultural crimes committed around the world. These important historical relics must be treated with caution and care, and galleries, auction houses, museums, and individual collectors must be willing to conduct proper due diligence to ensure that an item has not been unlawfully acquired.”
This latest discovered calf bearer ancient artifact passed through the same parties as the bull’s head sculpture. The artifact had been excavated at the ancient Temple of Eshmun and was stolen from Lebanon, according to prosecutors. It was then sold by Mr. Symes in 1996 for $4.5 million to the couple, who later sold it to the collector in New York.
We will follow this latest twist of the discovery of the second ancient artifact and its expected eventual return to Lebanon.