The Return of a Roman Portrait Stolen During WWII: The Cleveland Museum’s planned repatriation

In 2012 the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, purchased a Roman portrait bust of Drusus Minor (Image I), the son of Emperor Tiberius, for its gallery dedicated to the height of the Roman Empire.

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Image I: Marble portrait bust of Drusus Minor to be returned to Italy (photo from Angeleti 2017; The Art Newspaper)

The Details

When the museum acquired the piece it was believed to have resided in the private collection of the Bacri family from the 19th century. Fernand Sintes and his wife, while living in Algier, inherited the portrait. The couple brought the piece to France with them in 1960 where it remained until 2004 when it was sold at a Hotel Drouot Paris auction to an unnamed buyer. A “certificate of origin” was provided by their advisor and Parisian art dealer, Jean-Philippe Mariaud de Serres. Between the certificate and the personal assurances of Fernand Sintes, the museum was confident in the acquisition and purchased the work from Phoenix Ancient Art (Litt 2017). However, there were still concerns about gaps in the portrait’s provenance.

Firstly, the museum did not know who owned the work between 2004 and 2012, as the 2004 purchaser and 2012 seller to (or through) Phoenix Ancient Art are anonymous. Secondly, in 1960, when the Sintes family moved to France from Algier, Algeria was a French possession, and no export documentation was necessary for the move (Litt 2017). Therefore, the transfer from Algier to France could not be verified. The work was registered by the museum on the Association of Art Museum Directors’ “Object Registry” (https://aamd.org/object-registry), to aid future research into the piece’s provenance (Litt 2017).

It has been revealed that the piece was illicitly removed from a museum in Italy during WWII. It is believed that the object was excavated between 1925 and 1926 in Sessa Aurunca (Province of Campania, Italy), where it was photographed and placed in the Sessa Aurunca archaeological museum (Litt 2017). Here it resided until 1944 when it is believed to have been removed by French occupation troops. It is possible that the portrait ended up in Algeria through North African troops, and it is believed to have been in Algeria through the 1950’s, but this information is not verifiable. In 2011 and 2013 scholars Guiseppe Scarpati and Sergio Cascella reproduced previously unpublished photographs from 1926, which include the Drusus head upon its excavation (Angeleti 2017: Litt 2017).

Scarpati advocated for the return of the portrait to Italy as early as 2014, but Italy’s Ministry of Fine Arts was not contacted by the Cleveland Museum until 2016.

Why is this exciting?

This constitutes an excellent example of instances when ancient artifacts were subjected to the trafficking that is so often associated with art of later periods in discourse of WWII-era asset looting. The complicated gap of provenance and documentation presents not only the difficulties of verifying export information from certain occupations within this era, but also the realization that ancient artifacts were included in pillaged assets (whether by Nazi’s, Allies, etc.). The Nazi-era removals of ancient artifacts from both museums and private collections and subsequent restitutions have been largely ignored in academic circles and the media, respectively.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that ancient artworks were subjected to the criminality of Nazi looting, such the Mosse Art Restitution Project’s (http://mosseartproject.com/) 2015 and 2016 repatriations to Felicia Lauchmann-Mosse of two first or second century A.D. Roman-era mummy portraits (Zion 2016) and a second-century A.D. Roman Sarcophagus (Press Release Berlin 12 February 2015), which have been identified in the Rudolph Lepke-Kunst-Auctions-Haus, Berlin, auction catalogues. For anyone who is interested in viewing a Roman mummy portrait, there are some very similar examples on display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow (Image II) from the collection of the British Museum (that is not to suggest any provenance issues with the works in Glasgow).

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Image II: Roman Portrait Panel of Man (Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, on loan from the British Museum; 36.b.1912) (personal photo)

The trafficking of antiquities throughout the Nazi occupation is an under-explored area of WWII history to which the media and scholars should increase attention. I hope to see more institutions and private collectors pay attention to WWII-era provenance gaps in the acquisition of antiquities, as it can often be tempting to stop at the 1970’s line suggested by the 1970 UNESCO convention for preventing the purchase of recently illicitly excavated ancient artifacts (http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/illicit-trafficking-of-cultural-property/1970-convention/). Only through future consideration and comprehensive research into the treatment of archaeological material from this period can we fully comprehend the extent of Nazi-era crimes against art.

Provenance at the Cleveland Museum

It should also be noted that the Cleveland Museum of Art has an on-going Provenance Research Project for Nazi/World War II era collections. As of this post there is no information posted about the restitution of the Drusus portrait, but an excellent description of the projects aims, methodologies, and successes can be found at http://www.clevelandart.org/research/in-curatorial/provenance-research.

Works Consulted
Angeleti, G. (2017). The Cleveland Museum of Art returns bust of emperor’s ‘bloodthirsty’ son to Italy. The Art Newspaper. [online] Available at: http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/the-cleveland-museum-of-art-returns-bust-of-emperor-s-bloodthirsty-son-to-italy/ [Accessed 19 Apr. 2017].
Litt, S. (2017). Cleveland Museum of Art returns ancient Roman portrait of Drusus after learning it was stolen from Italy in WWII (photos). [online] cleveland.com. Available at: http://www.cleveland.com/arts/index.ssf/2017/04/cleveland_museum_of_art_return_2.html [Accessed 19 Apr. 2017].
Mosseartproject.com. (2017). The Mosse Art Restitution Project. [online] Available at: http://mosseartproject.com/ [Accessed 19 Apr. 2017].
Press Release (2015). Roman Sarcophagus with cupids illustration, last quarter / End of the 2nd Century AD (Inventory-No. SJ 1881); Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz restitutes art objects from the collection of Rudolf Mosse. 12 February.
Zion, I. (2016). Mummy portraits stolen by Nazis returned to Jewish family. The Times of Israel. [online] Available at: http://www.timesofisrael.com/mummy-portraits-stolen-by-nazis-returned-to-jewish-family/ [Accessed 19 Apr. 2017].

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