Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Cleveland Drusus Debacle

The Cleveland Museum of Art admits that it has bought another object which turns out to have been stolen (Steve Litt, 'Cleveland Museum of Art returns ancient Roman portrait of Drusus after learning it was stolen from Italy in WWII (photos)' The Plain Dealer April 18, 2017). This one, the head of Drusus broken off from a larger marble statue, was bought from the New York based Phoenix Ancient Art (Ali and Hicham Aboutaam), The museum and Italian police have discovered that the piece, bought by the museum in good faith for an undisclosed sum in 2012, was stolen in 1944 from a provincial museum in Sessa Aurunca near Naples. The museum has agreed to return the work to Italy. When it bought the piece from Phoenix Ancient Art,
the museum believed it had clear title, and that the work had been in an Algerian collection as far back as the late 19th century. The museum and its Italian counterparts now believe that Italian archaeologists excavated the Drusus head in 1925 or 1926 in Sessa Aurunca, in the Caserta Province of Campania, Italy, about an hour's drive north of Naples. The archaeologists had the Drusus photographed at the time, along with other discoveries including a marble portrait head of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, father of Drusus Minor.
The marble heads were all placed in the archaeological museum at Sessa Aurunca, where they remained until they were removed in 1944. It seems that the Drusus and Tiberius heads were stolen and sold off by French occupation troops in 1944 while they were billeted at the museum in Sessa Aurunca, or the works might have fallen into the hands of North African troops active in the area at the time, perhaps explaining the later appearance of the Drusus in Algeria as claimed in the collecting history supplied to the museum at the time of the sale.
The museum believed at the time that the portrait had been the property of the Bacri family (later known as the Sintes family) of Algiers, Algeria, as far back as the late 19th century. The museum said in 2012 that Fernand Sintes and his wife, then of Marseilles, France, inherited the work while living in Algiers. They subsequently moved it with them to Marseilles in 1960. Fernand Sintes subsequently sold the Drusus at an auction at the Hotel Drouot in Paris in 2004 to an unnamed buyer. A day later, Parisian art dealer Jean-Philippe Mariaud de Serres, who advised Sintes on the auction, provided a "certificate of origin" for the work that included the Bacri-Sintes history. That document and independent research carried out by the museum later buttressed its faith in its 2012 purchase. [...] because Algeria was a French possession in 1960, no export documentation was required for the Drusus. As a result, no record of the transfer from Algeria to France exists. [....]  The museum also didn't know who owned the work between 2004 and 2012.
In light of some concerns that were being raised about the object, the Cleveland museum posted a description of the Drusus on the "Object Registry" of the Association of Art Museum Directors, a global online clearinghouse for objects whose provenance is not entirely known (this page has now mysteriously disappeared).

Once again, we see the consequences for a person's health of getting involved in supplying collecting histories for objects sold by Phoenix, Informants quite often tend to die before the object comes to sale or shortly after. This is rather inconvenient if one might want to ask further questions of them. Anyway, due diligence must be seen to have been done:
According to the AAMD write-up, the Cleveland museum contacted Fernand Sintes who reconfirmed everything stated in the 2004 certificate of origin authored by de Serres. 
But there were uncomfortable questions to be answered:
Articles published in Italian archaeological magazines in 2011 and 2013 by scholars Giuseppe Scarpati and Sergio Cascella, respectively, reproduced the previously unpublished 1926 photographs taken when the Drusus and Tiberius heads were first unearthed. Those articles suggested that both pieces had been stolen from the local museum in 1944. A third article by Scarpati in 2014, in the Bolletino D'Arte, or Art Bulletin, mentioned the Cleveland museum's purchase of the work, and urged that it be returned to Italy. [....] The museum's purchase of the Drusus portrait in 2012 earned instant criticism from experts including archaeology Professor David Gill at the University of Suffolk in Ipswich, England. He and others complained of gaps in the provenance, or ownership history, of the object.
Note that one of the articles was already published before the 2012 sale. Why did the Museum not spot it?  It was only last year that the Cleveland museum contacted Italy's Ministry of Fine Arts in late 2016 and proposed collaborating on further research on the Drusus sculpture that also involved the Carabinieri. It was established that the Drusus head was the same as the one shown in the 1926 photograph, which means it had been removed from the museum at Sessa Aurunca.
William Griswold, the museum's director said that the museum isn't pointing fingers at Fernand Sintes or at Phoenix Ancient Art. "There's a gap [in the Drusus provenance] from 1944 until the 1960s, when the object was in France," Griswold said. "We have every reason to believe it was in Algeria through the '50s, but that's not fully documented." Griswold declined to comment on whether the museum would be reimbursed by Phoenix. 
It should be noted that the same Italian author (Scarpatti) has  spotted what looks very much like the missing Tiberius head at another gallery, and also sold in 2004 with a '1960s Algerian collection' provenance backstory'.

This bust has been discussed by me on this blog three times previously. In my first post (busy with other things as I recall), I took the published collecting history at face value [Monday, 13 August 2012, 'Cleveland Museum of Art buys Roman Bust', but on reading what colleagues were writing decided to take a closer look: Monday, 13 August 2012 'Cleveland Bust: "That World" Already asking Questions, Museum on the Defensive'. David Gill was looking into this object as was the cultural property lawyer Rick St Hilaire ("Unable to Obtain Documentary Confirmation" - Due Diligence and Questions Posed by the Collecting History of The Cleveland Museum of Art's Drusus Minor Head CHL Wednesday, August 15, 2012).  My third text referred to this and discussed that collecting history: Thursday, 16 August 2012, '"That World" Getting Closer, That "Due Diligence" Looking Still More Skimpy'.

**A 1926 photo taken after the excavation in Sessa Aurunca, Italy, documenting the discovery of the head of Drusus, lower right, (Ministero dei Beni e Delle Attivita Culturali del Turismo)

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