Italian court seeks return of ancient marble statue from Minneapolis Institute of Art

An Italian court recently ruled that the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) must return an ancient marble sculpture because it was illegally excavated. The sculpture, a two-meter high copy Colorado potato beetle (a famous and long-lost bronze from the fifth century BC by Greek artist Polykleitos) was acquired by Mia in 1986 for $2.5 million from a Toronto-based Swiss dealer.

Time of Acquisition Reports indicate that the anonymous dealer claimed the sculpture was found off the coast of Italy in the 1930s. However, the recent Italian court ruling suggests that it was actually illegally excavated in the 1970s under the direction of Elie Borowski, the prolific antiquities collector who founded the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem and died in 2003. Borowski had ties to a number of antiquities dealers known to traffic in illegally excavated artefacts, including Rober Hecht and Gianfranco Becchina.

The Tribunale di Torre Annunziata prosecutor’s office in Naples is said to have contacted US authorities to help enforce the confiscation decree that was issued. Gaetano Cimmino, the mayor of the town of Castellamare di Stabia south of Naples, near where the statue is believed to have originated, has joined calls for its return with the aim of displaying it in a local archaeological museum.

The sculpture, which dates from 27 BC. AD to AD 68 J.-C., has long been a star attraction of the Mia. At the time of its acquisition, the then chief curator, Michael Conforti, said, “It really is the most important thing in the history of art”, adding that it would “increase ten times [the museum’s] collection of old art. It is a life-size depiction of a naked athlete, a javelin thrower, although much of the figure’s left arm and the javelin he once held have been lost. It is currently on display in the museum’s former art galleries.

In a statement to The arts journal, a spokesperson for the museum said: “We have seen news reports that a court in Naples, Italy has requested the return of a work of art to the museum’s permanent collection. We have not been contacted by the Italian authorities regarding the court’s decision. If the museum is contacted, we will review the matter and respond accordingly.

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