Greek or Roman?

Art Business News, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Greek or Roman?


CLEVELAND -- Early this summer, the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired what was considered a rare, ancient Greek sculpture, "Apollo Sauroktonos" ("Lizard-Slayer"), sculpted by Praxiteles, one of the most influential Greek artists of the Classical period (August issue of ABN, page 26). The museum is now facing heavy criticism over uncertainties about the age of this bronze masterpiece, whether the piece is in fact a Greek bronze sculpture or, instead, a Roman version of the piece.

Leading archeologists say the museum shouldn't have bought the work because its ownership history is riddled with information gaps. "You've got holes at virtually every important point in the story" says Peter Dunham, an associate professor of anthropology at Cleveland State University.

Michael Bennett, the museum's curator of Greek and Roman Art, first heard of Apollo while visiting the Phoenix Ancient Art gallery in Geneva, Switzerland. The gallery officials would not tell Bennett from whom the sculpture was purchased but, instead, referred him to Ernst-Ulrich Walter, a retired attorney, whose family had the sculpture in their collection since the 1930s. Walter explained that the German government confiscated the property after World War II, and following the reunification of Germany in 1990, Walter reclaimed the estate, finding the sculpture in pieces. Walter said he sold "Apollo" to a Dutch art dealer for 1,600 Deutsche marks ($1,250 in American dollars), thinking it was a garden ornament that he remembered seeing in the mid 1930s. But, Walter does not remember the man's name, nor does he have the receipt of sale.

Bennett says the sculpture has changed hands several times before surfacing at Phoenix Ancient Art gallery, and the museum does not have evidence of the paper trail.

"Museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art are outrageous in their acquisition policies," says Ricardo Elia, associate professor of archaeology at Boston University. "The collecting of undocumented antiquities is what's driving the looting of archeological sites everywhere."

The museum acknowledges these gaps in the Apollo's past but says physical evidence shows the sculpture has been out of the ground for at least a century. …

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