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MFA hands over pair of likely looted Bubon bronzes to Manhattan DA’s office

The two ancient fragments are believed to have been stolen from an archaeological site in Turkey

A partial bronze head of an idealized king that dates sometime between the 1st century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D. was turned over to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, along with a bronze leg fragment from around 180-200 A.D. The pair of sculptures is believed to have been looted from an archaeological site in what is present-day Turkey.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Museum of Fine Arts transferred a pair of ancient bronze sculpture fragments to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office earlier this month after determining the works were likely looted from the Bubon archaeological site, in what is today Turkey, during the 1950s and 1960s.

The two fragments — a right leg that dates from around 180-200 A.D, and a partial head of an idealized king from sometime between the 1st century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D. — both appeared on the art market in 1966, around the same time experts say a host of other high-quality bronzes from the region began to surface.


A spokesperson for the Manhattan DA’s office confirmed Tuesday the two fragments are part of a wide-ranging criminal investigation into an antiquities smuggling ring that looted objects from Bubon and trafficked them through Manhattan.

The investigation, which has targeted antiquities in several states, has so far retrieved 13 objects. That figure includes the two sculpture fragments from the MFA, as well as an ancient bronze bust the DA seized from the Worcester Art Museum over the summer. The spokesperson, who declined to comment specifically on the MFA’s return, said the DA’s office has already repatriated three artifacts to Turkey and is still seeking four other objects as part of the investigation.

Victoria Reed, the MFA’s senior curator for provenance, told the Globe the museum launched its own examination in response to the DA’s investigation.

“We pulled our own files and did our own research,” said Reed. “We came to the determination that these were very probably looted from Bubon and smuggled out of the country shortly before they appeared on the market.”

She added that the museum originally contacted Turkey directly about repatriating the objects, but was instructed to work with the Manhattan DA.


“That seems to be what the country of origin would like,” said Reed. “So we’re working with him.”

“Right leg of a man”, about A.D. 180–200, Bronze. Gift of Jerome M. Eisenberg and Alan Ravenal. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Experts say the Bubon site held numerous large statues depicting Roman emperors. A series of earthquakes preserved the statues underground until the 1950s, when locals began digging them up.

Elizabeth Marlowe, an art historian at Colgate University, said the looting of Bubon has been well known for decades and called it “the worst-kept secret in the world.”

She described how a Turkish archaeologist named Jale Inan began investigating the illicit dig site, writing a series of articles that described the illegal operation.

“Inan’s hypothesis has never been seriously questioned by anyone since,” said Marlowe, who added Turkey’s cultural patrimony law, which restricts the export of cultural objects, dates from 1906. “No alternative explanation for the statues’ origins has been proposed.”

Some of the objects targeted by the Manhattan DA’s office were allegedly acquired by Robert Hecht, an antiquities dealer who was accused of illicit trafficking before his death in 2012.

The MFA’s objects, by contrast, came through the late Jerome Eisenberg, an antiquities dealer who ran the erstwhile Royal-Athena Galleries in Manhattan.

Reed said the museum doesn’t know where Eisenberg got the objects, but that he showed former MFA curator Cornelius Vermeule a group of bronze fragments that included the fragmentary leg and face in 1966.

Eisenberg later sold the partial head to an anonymous collector, who donated it to the MFA in 2003, according to the object’s provenance. As for the leg fragment, Eisenberg, along with Alan Ravenal of Providence, RI, gave it to the museum as a gift in 1968, just a few years after it entered the market.


“There’s pretty much unanimous scholarly consensus that the leg is part of one of these Imperial statues that stood at Bubon,” said Reed. “The face is a little bit less clear, but it appeared on the market at the same time with this group of Bubon fragments, and it is certainly of Turkish origin, so the likelihood that it came from that site seems pretty high.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him @malcolmgay.