TORRE ANNUNZIATA, Italy – It has long been rumored that a shipwreck in the distant past sent a precious Roman marble statue – a rare copy of a fifth-century BC depiction of the “Doryphoros”, or spear-bearer – into the depths of the seas off Italy.
That was the story given in the late 1970s when the statue appeared out of nowhere in Munich’s Glyptothek, the city’s museum of ancient Roman and Greek art. A dealer had loaned it to the museum in anticipation of a possible sale, and the story he then told was of an image saved from the ravages of seawater and kept in a private collection, where it escaped notice for decades.
And that was the account approved by officials at the Minneapolis Institute of Art when they bought the statue in 1986 for $2.5 million and installed it as a signature artifact in a showcase gallery.
But now Italian authorities are urging the Minneapolis museum to return the work, alleging it was illegally excavated in the 1970s at a site near Pompeii.
In addition, prosecutors say there is evidence that even before purchasing the statue, Minneapolis museum officials knew there were concerns about the origin story, but went ahead anyway.
“They certainly had some doubts,” said Nunzio Fragliasso, the chief prosecutor of Torre Annunziata, a town south of Naples, where investigators have looked at correspondence between the Minnesota Museum employees from the time of purchase.
In January, based on evidence presented to him by prosecutors, an Italian judge ruled that the museum had to return the statue because it had been illegally excavated and exported from Italy.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art said in a statement that it had not been officially notified of the Italian court’s decision and that it “has always researched acquisitions, including soliciting feedback from outside scientists.”
The subject of all this attention is one of the few ancient copies of a revered original by the Greek artist Polykleitos, long embraced as one of the most important works of classical antiquity, celebrated as an example of a perfectly proportioned body (detailed by the sculptor in “The Canon”, an accompanying treatise to the statue). Of the extant copies, the one in Minneapolis, believed to have been made between 27 B.C. and A.D. 68, is considered one of the best-preserved copies.
The statue had been put up for sale to the Munich Museum while it was on loan there. At the time, the statue was called “Doryphoros aus Stabiae”, a reference to the ancient city on the Gulf of Naples that was presumably identified as its original home. The piece was handled by Elie Borowski, an antiquities dealer and collector who later founded the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem and died in 2003.
While the German museum raised money to buy the piece, the Italian news media delved into its provenance. In 1980, the national broadcaster RAI broadcast a report suggesting that the statue had been excavated in 1975 or 1976 while construction work was underway in an area of present-day Castellammare di Stabia. The report included four photos, reportedly taken shortly after the statue’s discovery, that resembled a match when compared to the statue – down to broken and missing pieces, including part of a foot.
In 1984, Italian judicial authorities ordered the seizure of the statue — still in the museum in Germany — a decision that Munich’s judicial authorities reversed the following year.
By this time, the Munich Glyptothek had decided not to buy the statue, partly because of the price and partly because of the attention of the Italian authorities, according to testimonies given last year by former and current Glyptothek employees to Italian researchers, Fragliasso , the prosecutor , said in an interview.
In 1986, the Minneapolis Institute of Art bought the statue, and the then chief curator echoed Borowski’s report, who said the statue had been in private hands since the 1930s, when it was found at sea, off the coast of Italy.
Over the years, the question of the origin of the statue has resurfaced. Archaeologist Mario Pagano said in an interview that he raised the provenance issue with officials of the Italian Ministry of Culture around 2001, when he was director of the Stabiae site, part of the ancient city that was also buried by Mount Vesuvius in 79. ad.
Italian officials did open an investigation around that time, but they never filed a formal refund request with the Minneapolis museum.
Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, was a principal curator of the Minneapolis Museum from 2009 to 2015, by which time the statue had already become a permanent part of the collection. Schmidt said in an interview that he was told that museum officials had been approached by Italian police about the statue a few years before his term in office.
“The museum said, ‘Oh yes, please come here. Let’s see what we have, let’s look at it together,'” Schmidt recalled in an interview. But months passed, letters went back and forth, and eventually no one showed up, he said. Schmidt said the museum’s policy on provenance disputes would be imminent, citing a medieval silver reliquary that had been returned after learning it had been stolen. The museum was also one of several to heed an Italian campaign in recent decades to reclaim artifacts and return a red-figure Attic vase it had purchased in 1983.
Schmidt said he had interacted with Italian officials and scholars during his time at the museum as part of his work, and there were never any questions about the statue’s past.
But about three years ago, the image again fell into the crosshairs of Italian researchers as they pursued an unrelated review of frescoes Borowski had created. The researchers retrieved a substantial file on the Doryphoros dating back to the 1980s, which had grown in size over the decades.
“In reviving the ancient research, we encountered extensive correspondence between Minneapolis museum staff,” Fragliasso said, “not only about their fundraising efforts, but also about verifying the legitimacy of the statue’s provenance.”
At the very least, he said, officials at the Minneapolis Museum were aware of the statue’s obscure origins, including claims it had been illegally excavated and that the Italians had asked for the statue to be returned from Munich in 1984.
In an undated letter on file, he said, museum staff are talking about the views of three archaeologists who doubt the antiquity has been found in the sea and who may be calling it “hot.”
In another memo, museum staff expressed concern about Borowski’s story, noting that it would have been difficult for such a remarkable sculpture to go undetected in a private collection for decades, prosecutors said.
Michael Conforti, chief curator of the Minneapolis museum at the time of the purchase, referred questions to the museum. But Conforti, director emeritus of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, said in an email that he recalled that the museum had relied on the findings of the German lawsuit over the statue from the early 1980s. The court, he said, had “found that there was no proof of discovery as once claimed =(the factor that enabled us to make the purchase at the time.)”
Italian officials say that although the German court declined to order the statue’s return to Italy, it did not rule on the merits of the case.
Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the archaeological site at Pompeii, said experts had other reasons to doubt Borowski’s statement — primarily the state of the statue itself.
“The statue shows no signs that it has been under salty seawater for a long time,” he said, referring to the impact such corrosives would have had on the marble. “This comes from the land.”
Last year, Fragliasso took his case to the judge in Torre Annunziata, who issued a ruling calling for the statue to be confiscated. In February, Fragliasso formally requested that legal authorities in the United States assist him in carrying out the judge’s order. But he is still processing the paperwork that US officials will use to review his request.
By not commenting, the Minneapolis Museum acknowledged in an email statement that it had seen press releases about the court’s decision. The museum, also known as MIA, said it would be premature to discuss Italian prosecutors’ concerns.
“Regardless of the information that may have been shared with you,” the statement said, “Mia has not been contacted by the Italian authorities in connection with the court’s decision. If the museum is contacted, we will address the matter.” review and respond accordingly.”
If the statue were returned, officials have plans to put it on display at the Libero D’Orsi museum in Castellammare di Stabia, a new museum just opened in 2020 that will display works excavated from the villas of the old city, including frescoes illegally excavated in the 1970s and later recovered by Italian police for art theft.
Although the case is being pursued by local prosecutors, Italian officials at the national level have also shown renewed interest in the return.
“I think there is excellent evidence that the statue came from Castellammare and that it was illegally exported,” said Massimo Osanna, an archaeologist and the Ministry of Culture official responsible for state museums.