Looting, collecting, and exhibiting: the Bubon bronzes

Where do the objects in museums come from? Explore the tension between collectors and the preservation of knowledge.


Bronze statue of a nude male figure, Greek or Roman, Hellenistic or Imperial, c. 200 B.C.E. – c. 200 C.E. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Speakers: Dr. Elizabeth Marlowe and Dr. Steven Zucker ARCHES: At Risk Cultural Heritage Education Series

Additional resources:

Dr. Elizabeth Marlowe, “When Will Museums Tell the Whole Truth About Their Antiquities?,” Hyperallergic, September 14, 2022

Bubon on Chasing Aphrodite

Bubon on Looting Matters


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”bubon?”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re standing in the Greek and Roman courtyard at Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a gorgeous bronze sculpture of a male nude, but this is a sculpture we don’t know a lot about.

Dr. Elizabeth Marlowe: [0:16] It’s thought to have been one of a large group of bronze sculptures that were found in the late 1960s by local villagers in a town in southwestern Turkey, at a site that has been identified as a sebasteion, which is a nice word that means a building dedicated to the imperial cult, so this is like a temple where the Roman emperors were worshiped.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] Western Turkey had at one point been Greek and then it had become part of the Roman Empire, so you have generations of types of temples.

Dr. Marlowe: [0:48] One of the ways that cities sought to earn the favor of the imperial government back in Rome was by setting up these centers of worship of the imperial cult. It was a way of showing how much we love you, Roman emperors, now please give us tax breaks, or whatever other benefits they wanted.

Dr. Zucker: [1:05] The figure itself clearly shows the Greco-Roman context out of which it came. The figure is represented in a beautiful contrapposto. The weight is on the right leg. The left leg is free. The body responds to that. There’s a sense of ease that we associate with the classical.

Dr. Marlowe: [1:21] The muscles are all beautifully portioned. They’re well-defined but not bulky. This embodies that classical ideal a hundred percent.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] The villagers who unearthed this sculpture knew that they were doing something illegal. There were laws in place in Turkey to preserve cultural heritage, and yet here it is now in a museum in New York.

Dr. Marlowe: [1:42] What happened is that, starting in the ’70s and especially during the 1980s, these life-size bronze statues, that seem for stylistic reasons all to have been created in the mid-2nd century, started showing up on the art market, really all at once. Even though this is a genre that is usually very rarely preserved.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] Bronze is rare because it can be re-melted. It can be used for weapons. It can be used for other sculptures. And the result is, most sculptures that we have from the ancient world are marbles.

Dr. Marlowe: [2:12] There’s this sudden availability of a large number of these spectacular life-size bronze sculptures on the market that museums and private collectors begin eagerly snapping up, paying top dollar for them because of the quality, because of the rareness.

Dr. Zucker: [2:29] Now, we don’t know who snapped this particular sculpture up. And the Met’s label, it says, “Anonymous Loan.”

Dr. Marlowe: [2:35] It’s probably owned by a private collector. Usually, museums do this because the hope is that eventually that private collector will leave it to the museum.

Dr. Zucker: [2:44] The sculpture that’s before us is headless but what seems likely is that the sculpture, when it was unearthed, was intact, and the head was severed because that could be sold separately. Now, the fact that the sculpture was probably unearthed in the 1960s is extremely important.

Dr. Marlowe: [3:00] In 1970, UNESCO passed a convention stating that all signatories would, from this point forward, respect each other’s cultural property laws. Everyone who agreed to participate in this convention were agreeing to no longer import the cultural property from countries that wanted to retain that material for themselves.

Dr. Zucker: [3:24] In practice, that means if something was looted after 1970 it could no longer be legally imported into the United States. But if it was before 1970, even though it was excavated illegally, it could be. That gave the owner a kind of legal protection.

Dr. Marlowe: [3:38] Nowadays, when objects are available for sale on the art market, the desirable thing is for them to have a paper trail that shows that they left their country of origin prior to 1970.

Dr. Zucker: [3:51] The story of the looting eventually came out, and we have now the bases at the complex from which this likely came.

Dr. Marlowe: [3:59] We actually know a lot about the sebasteion in the city of Bubon because the statue bases are still there. So of course, now the question is to try to match up all of these beautiful bronze statues in museums and private collections around North America with the statue bases that are still in situ in Turkey.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] Because those have inscriptions on them and would identify the figures.

Dr. Marlowe: [4:23] Perhaps not surprisingly, museums and private collectors have been reluctant to allow this kind of testing to take place, for example, to create plaster casts of the feet of their statues to then go see if those match the bases in Turkey. They’ve been reluctant to do that because they’d rather not know that their statue has been illegally removed.

Dr. Zucker: [4:45] Because that would build evidence that could support the case to return the sculptures to Turkey.

Dr. Marlowe: [4:50] In fact, we can even say that there’s a kind of tension between ownership interests and historical knowledge. For example, the label at the Metropolitan leaves open a huge amount of uncertainty.

[5:04] This statue is described as being Greek or Roman, Hellenistic or imperial, 2nd century B.C. all the way up to 2nd century A.D. They’re saying, “We have no idea where in a 400-year time span this statue actually dates to.”

[5:19] But if we know that it’s from this temple to the imperial cult in southwest Turkey and that it was part of a large group — there were 20 other statues there, all from the mid-2nd century depicting emperors of the Antonine dynasty — that would give us a lot of information about why these were produced, whose interests they served, what they represented, how they would have been perceived by audience members.

Dr. Zucker: [5:43] And so the process of art history, the process of archaeology, is a function of the interaction between the museum, the collector, looters, and the public.

[5:51] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Elizabeth Marlowe and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Looting, collecting, and exhibiting: the Bubon bronzes," in Smarthistory, September 1, 2017, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/looting-collecting-and-exhibiting-the-bubon-bronzes/.