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Looting, collecting, and exhibiting: the Bubon bronzes

A mysterious bronze sculpture from a Roman temple in Turkey sparks debate. Found illegally in the 1960s, it's now in a New York museum. The sculpture's beauty reflects Greco-Roman ideals, but its severed head and unknown origins raise questions about cultural heritage and the ethics of the art market. Bronze statue of a nude male figure, Greek or Roman, Hellenistic or Imperial, c. 200 B.C.E. - c. 200 C.E. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Speakers: Dr. Elizabeth Marlowe and Dr. Steven Zucker ARCHES: At Risk Cultural Heritage Education Series.

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Video transcript

We're standing in the Greek and Roman Courtyard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at a gorgeous bronze sculpture of a male nude but this is a sculpture that we do not know a lot about. It's thought to have been one of a large group of bronze sculptures that were found in the late 1960s by local villagers in a town in a town in southwestern Turkey at a site that has been identified as a sebasteion which is a nice word that means a building dedicated to the imperial cults so this is like a temple where the Roman emperors were worshipped. Western Turkey had at one point been Greek and then it had become part of the Roman Empire and so you have generations of types of temples. And one of the ways that cities sought to earn the favor of the imperial government back in Rome was by setting up these centers of worship of the imperial cult. It was a way of showing how much "we love you Roman Emperors now please give us tax breaks" or whatever other benefits they wanted. and the figure itself clearly shows the Greco-Roman context out of which it came. The figure is represented in a beautiful contrapposto The weight is on the right leg, the left leg is free. The body responds to that. There's a sense of ease that we associate with the classical. The muscles are all beautifully portioned, they're well-defined but not bulky This embodies that Classical ideal, a hundred percent But the villagers who unearthed this sculpture knew that they were doing something illegal. There were laws in place, in Turkey, to preserve cultural heritage. And yet, here it is now, in a museum in New York. What happened is that, starting in the 70s and especially during the 1980s These life-size bronze statues that seem for stylistic reasons All to have been created in the mid-second century started showing up on the art market. Really, at once. Even though this is a genre that is very rarely preserved. Bronze is rare because it can be re-melted It can be used for weapons, it can be used for other sculptures and the result is most sculptures that we have form the ancient world are marbles So there's this sudden availability of a large number of these spectacular life-size bronze sculptures on the market that museums and private collectors begin eagerly snapping up pay top dollar for them because of the quality because of the rareness. Now we don't know who snapped this particular sculpture up and the Met's label says "Anonymous loan." It's probably owned by a private collector and usually museum's do this because the hope is that eventually that private collector will leave it to the museum. The sculpture that's before us is headless but what seems likely is that the sculpture, when it was unearthed, was intact and the head was severed because that could be sold separately. Now the fact that the sculpture was probably unearthed in the 1960s is EXTREMELY important In 1970, UNESCO passed a convention stating that all signatories would from this point forward respect each others cultural property laws So everyone who agreed to participate in this convention Were agreeing to no longer import the cultural property from countries that wanted to retain that material for themselves So in practice that means, if something was looted after 1970 it could no longer be legally imported into the United States but if it was before 1970 even though it was excavated illegally, it could be and that gave the owner a kind of legal protection So nowadays when objects are available for sale on the art market the desirable thing is for them to have a paper trail that shows that they left their country of origin prior to 1970 The story of the looting eventually came out and we have now the bases at the complex from which this likely came We actually know a lot about the sebasteion in the city of Bubon because the statue bases are still there So of course now the question is to try to match up all of these beautiful bronze statues in museums and private collections around North America with the statue bases that are still in situ in Turkey because those have inscriptions on them and would identify the figures Perhaps not surprisingly museums and private collectors have been reluctant to allow this kind of testing to take place for example, to create plaster castes of the feet of their statues to then go see if those match the bases in Turkey. They've been reluctant to do that because They'd rather not know that their statue has been illegally removed because that would build evidence that could support the case to return the sculptures to Turkey In fact, we can even say that there's a kind of tension between ownership interests and historical knowledge So, for example, the label at the Metropolitan leaves open a huge amount of uncertainty This statue is described as being Greek or Roman Hellenistic or Imperial 2nd Century BC all the way up to 2nd Century AD So they're saying "We have no idea where in a 400 year time span this statue actually dates to. But, if we know that it's from this Temple to the Imperial Cult in southwest Turkey and that it was part of a large group, there were 20 other statues there All from the mid-2nd Century depicting emperors of the Antonine Dynasty that would give us a lot of information about why these were produced, whose interests they served what they represented, how they would have been perceived by audience members And so, the process of art history the process of archaeology, is a function of the interaction between the museum, the collector looters, and the public