Cleveland Museum of Art Returns 2,200-Year-Old Statue to Libya

The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) will transfer ownership of a 2,200-year-old Ptolemaic statue to Libya, as announced today, May 29, in a press release issued jointly with Libya’s Department of Antiquities. The work will remain at the CMA for several years on loan.

The museum attributed the decision to “new information” from the Department of Antiquities and its own research. CMA Chief Marketing Officer Todd Mesek told Hyperallergic that the Libyan authority contacted the museum late last year asking the CMA to acknowledge that “Statue of a Man” had been taken from the country’s Ptolemais Museum during World War II. Mesek said the CMA found a 1950 record noting that the artifact was uncovered in 1937–1939 excavations but likely lost in 1941, when the Ptolemais Museum was destroyed during British occupation. According to the CMA’s object listing, the sculpture was in Lucerne, Switzerland by 1960 and entered the collection of Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman in New York in 1966. In 1991, the couple donated the artifact to the CMA.

“Our colleagues in Libya have helped to clarify our understanding of this time period, and although the CMA acquired the sculpture in good faith, we have concluded that — due to these wartime events that took place many decades before — the right course of action is to transfer the sculpture to Libya,” Mesek said.

The Roman or Greek Hellenistic basalt statue, described by the museum as a “fascinating combination of old and new,” was created during Egypt’s Ptolemaic period, the final and longest era of the ancient empire’s history. The work, which stands a little under two feet tall, depicts a man dressed in a shirt, shawl, and wraparound skirt. The choice of clothing and rendering of the figure’s natural hair are consistent with the era, but the striding pose and curvature of the subject’s body evoke older Egyptian sculptural traditions. 

The announcement comes on the heels of a pending lawsuit over a $20 million ancient sculpture at the CMA. Last fall, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office seized a circa 150 BCE to 200 CE Roman or Hellenistic bronze statue of a “draped male figure,” as the museum had retitled the work. The CMA previously described the sculpture as a depiction of a Roman emperor, likely Marcus Aurelius — suggesting that the artifact may have been looted from Bubon, Turkey, where a Marcus Aurelius statue was ripped from its pedestal, as expounded by scholar Elizabeth Marlowe in an opinion for Hyperallergic in 2022. Months later, the CMA sued the Manhattan DA’s Office, a rare occurrence in museum repatriation claims.

“Statue of a Man” will remain on view at the CMA for “several years,” although a specific timeline has yet to be established. Libyan Department of Antiquities Chairman Dr. Mohamed Faraj Mohamed al-Faloos will travel to Cleveland to sign an official transfer agreement with the CMA Director Dr. William M. Griswold. The two parties will “explore areas for future collaboration,” which could include “scholarly exchange” and additional loans between the CMA and the North African nation.

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