Greek or Roman?

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. On the basis of its style and technique, they strongly believe that the work is by Praxiteles.

“Because of the extensive amount of research that we did, and because of the questions we posed and answered ourselves, I feel personally confident that the acquisition was proper, and I’m proud it’s at the Cleveland Museum of Art,” says Bennett.

Prior to the purchase, the museum spent a year conducting scientific tests and consulting experts on this matter, including David Mitten, curator of ancient art at the Harvard University; Henry Lie, director of the Straus Center for Conservation at Harvard; and Carol Mattusch, professor of art history at George Mason University.

“It clearly is not a fake,” says Lie, He provided the crucial analysis that the sculpture had been joined at the base, once and only once, and that the corrosion is at least 100 years old.

Critics argue another reason the museum made a mistake was because the Phoenix Ancient Art gallery has had several run-ins with the law. Ali Aboutaam, who manages the gallery branch in Geneva with his brother, Hicham Aboutaam, was convicted in Egypt last year for smuggling, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Hicham Aboutaam, too, is in trouble with the law. He recently pleaded guilty in New York, the day after the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired Apollo, to a misdemeanor federal charge. He pleaded guilty to falsifying a customs document to hide the origins of an ancient silver drinking vessel.

But Katharine Reid, director at the Cleveland Museum of Art, says a greater public good is served by exhibiting the work for all to see than by passing it up. She believes the museum has done the right thing. “We feel that giving it a safe place and giving it exposure to a broad group of people is preferable to leaving it in a store room.”



The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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