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Cleveland Museum Strikes Defiant Tone on Antiquities Collecting – UPDATED

August 13, 2012

The Cleveland Museum of Art has acquired an ancient Roman portrait of Drusus minor, son of Emperor Tiberius, who had a reputation for loving blood sport and alcohol, and who was prone to fits of rage.

The Cleveland Museum of Art has announced the acquisition of two significant works, a Roman portrait bust (above) and a Mayan vessel (below) – however, according to a New York Times article, the provenance for both is iffy and the article says: “Neither object has an ironclad record going back earlier than 1970.”  The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports 1970 is the cut off date in guidelines established by the American Association of Museum Directors:

which stipulate that museums generally should avoid buying antiquities unless they were documented as being outside their likely country of origin before 1970, the date of an international UNESCO convention aimed at halting the looting of antiquities, or were legally exported thereafter.

A statement by the museum, according to the Plain Dealer, directly contradicts the Times’ report:

Both pieces, acquired for undisclosed prices, are in superb condition, of excellent quality and were bought in accordance with American art museum guidelines aimed at halting the looting of antiquities, the museum said.

The Cleveland Museum of Art has just acquired this ancient Mayan vessel.

The portrait bust was acquired from Phoenix Ancient Art, owned by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam.  Phoenix is a leading dealer in antiquities, but as the Plain Dealer notes: “Both Aboutaam brothers, who maintain offices in New York and Geneva, Switz., have had brushes with the law.”

Ali Aboutaam was convicted in absentia in Egypt in 2003 on charges of smuggling and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Ali Aboutaam’s lawyer, Mario Roberty, said at the time that the charges were “absolutely ridiculous” and politically motivated.

Hicham Aboutaam pleaded guilty in New York on June, 2004, to a misdemeanor federal charge that he had falsified a customs document to hide the origins of an ancient silver drinking vessel the Phoenix gallery later sold for $950,000.

And, the Cleveland Museum was one of many institutions (along with the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and others) forced to return antiquities looted from Italy:

The Cleveland museum in 2008 returned 13 antiquities and a Renaissance era processional cross to Italy, after authorities reportedly proved that the objects were looted, stolen or trafficked.

This line about the Roman portrait bust from the Times’ coverage well illustrates the problem:

It was sold at auction in 2004 in France and has no publication record before 1970. But the museum said it believed its history could be traced back to the late 19th century as the property of a prominent family in Algiers.

The museum should produce the evidence it claims traces the bust’s provenance to the 19th century, or they will certainly face more scrutiny and doubt.  Likewise, dealers in antiquities should also provide clear, documented provenance for works they offer for sale (and something more than the opaque “Property of a Private Swiss Collection” line).  Transparency about provenance is essential in antiquities collecting – otherwise the demand for looted works will continue.  And, collecting is not about ownership – it’s about stewardship, responsibility and, in the case of major institutions, setting an example for other collectors.


From Ton Cremers at the Museum Security Network:

The very same Phoenix Ancient Art (Aboutaam brothers) sold the stolen
Ka Nefer Nefer mask to the Saint Louis Art Museum:
Isn’t about time that museums stop buying anything from this gallery?
There seems to be somewhat fishy with the provenance all the time.
From the Looting Matters blog: Cleveland Comment on Lack of “documentary confirmation”:
The [Cleveland Museum of Art] Director, David Franklin, emphasises what he terms “responsible collecting” by the Museum:

“I am pleased we can add these important works of art to the museum’s Classical and Pre-Columbian holdings and continue our collecting of the finest examples of art from across cultures and time periods,” stated David Franklin, the Sarah S. and Alexander M. Cutler Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “I believe museums play an invaluable role in society as repositories and presenters of the world’s art history, and through responsible collecting, museums make accessible the world’s art objects for the public’s enjoyment and education.”

Perhaps Franklin will produce what appears to be the unauthenticated documentation to defend his acquisition.


From the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) Web site:

The Cleveland Museum of Art has provenance information for [the Roman bust] back to the 1960’s, but has been unable to obtain documentary confirmation of portions of the provenance as described below.


From Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire:

There is no reported information about the Drusus Minor head’s find spot or the archaeological context in which it was found. The Cleveland Museum explains that the head appeared on the market at auction in 2004.  The museum was not the purchaser of the piece at the time, and the auction buyer remains unknown. Apparently there is no import or export paperwork supplied to the museum that may shed more light on either the object’s country of manufacture, the original seller of the piece, or any other data that might help complete a due diligence investigation.

The museum suggests an ownership history of the piece prior to the 1960’s but it concedes that its pre-2004 information is sourced in a “certificate of origin” produced a day after the auction by antiquities dealer and adviser Jean-Philippe Mariaud de Serres.  He “assisted the prior owner and consigner, Fernand Sintes,” according to the Cleveland Museum’s object registry narrative.  The certificate–not generated by the actual consignor but produced by an author who passed away five years ago–appears to be one of two primary sources relied on by the museum to establish the head’s collecting history.  Meanwhile, the museum has not published any post-2004 collecting history information except to say that it bought the Drusus Minor head from Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealer with galleries in Geneva and New York.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. vishnevats permalink
    August 13, 2012 12:56 PM

    Any details on the provenance of the Maya vase?

  2. August 13, 2012 3:02 PM

    According to the NY Times: “Though the Mayan vessel is in photographs that place it in New York City in 1969 and was published as part of a notable New York collection in 1973, neither object has an ironclad record going back earlier than 1970.”

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