MFA returns Roman sculpture’s top half to Turkey, declaring it’s the right thing to do
The Museum of Fine Arts ended a more than two-decade-old dispute with Turkey Thursday by returning the top half of its “Weary Herakles’’ statue to Turkish officials. The 1,800-year-old Roman sculpture has been at the MFA since 1982. But after years of negotiations, the MFA acknowledged in July that the statue, which experts believe was probably looted from an excavation in Turkey, should be sent back to that country.
Turkish officials met with MFA leaders for less than an hour on Thursday to sign an agreement transferring ownership of the sculpture to the Turkish government. The agreement stated that the MFA acquired the work in good faith and without knowing about any of the questionable circumstances surrounding its path from Turkey to Boston.
The MFA’s top half of “Weary Herakles’’ will be reunited with its bottom half in a museum in Antalya, Turkey. MFA officials had pressed to have the sculpture of the muscular hero reassembled in Boston and shown whole at the MFA first, but they were rebuffed by Turkish officials.
In July, the MFA first publicly confirmed the ongoing negotiations and acknowledged that the piece should be reunited with its lower half and returned to Turkey.
Yesterday’s news of the return of “Weary Herakles’’ was hailed by former Turkish cultural official Engin Ozgen, who began efforts to get the statue returned in the early 1990s.
“What makes me happy is that this happened without a legal battle,’’ Ozgen said. “Negotiations brought this ending. That’s nice.’’
He also said that he hoped the return of “Herakles’’ would bring more attention to his country’s efforts to get looted works back.
“I’ve been reading only about the Italians and Greeks and how they’ve succeeded,’’ said Ozgen. “This will show the world that the Turks are not ignorant anymore, that they will fight for their past and their heritage.’’
After years of on-again, off-again discussions, the latest stage in this saga moved quickly. The Turkish officials contacted the MFA Sept. 5 to resolve the claim. On Wednesday, the top half of “Weary Herakles,’’ which had been in MFA storage since 2007, was brought out for the MFA’s collections committee, which voted to de-accession the piece. On Thursday, the MFA’s board of trustees approved the transfer.
A group of Turkish officials met early Thursday evening in a staging area near the museum’s loading dock. They gave MFA director Malcolm Rogers a decorative plate in appreciation during the signing. Museum workers packed “Herakles’’ in a crate, rolled it over to the loading dock, and put it into a vehicle being used by the Turkish officials.
The “Weary Herakles’’ statue is one of more than 100 Roman copies of a fourth-century BC bronze original by the Greek sculptor Lysippos of Sikyon.
In 1980, Turkish archeologists found the bottom half of “Herakles’’ in an excavation site in Perge, a city near the country’s southern coast and once a wealthy ancient center. The top half was not spotted by archeologists, but must have been in the area, they say, where it was probably found by a worker and whisked out of the site. It emerged publicly in 1981, when the MFA purchased it with New York collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White from a German dealer. The top half went on display at the MFA on April 2, 1982.
The German dealer told the collectors and the MFA that the statue had been in his mother’s collection and, before that, had come from a dealer in Germany around 1950. But Turkish officials did not believe that account. They said it was stolen from the excavation site and in the early 1990s began pursuing its return.
At first, the MFA needed to be convinced that the two pieces - the top half in Boston, the bottom at the museum in Antalya - even fit together. That test took place in 1992 at the MFA, when plaster casts of the two halves were put together and it was clear they were parts of the same whole.
Brunilde S. Ridgway, now retired but then a Bryn Mawr professor of classical and Near Eastern archeology, was there that day as an expert requested by the Turkish government. She said she is thrilled to hear of the piece’s return.
“I don’t think the issue is so much the beauty of the statue,’’ Ridgway said yesterday. “There are a lot of statues of that type. What is so important is that it will discourage people from doing such things, especially when they get hit in their pockets.’’
Katherine Getchell, the MFA deputy director who handled the negotiations, had said in July that she hoped the museum could put the piece together in Boston and display the reunited “Herakles’’ as early as next year.
But she said it was clear that the Turkish officials want to show it in Antalya sooner. She said it will probably be put together in the next two months. The officials, in conversations, did not rule out loaning to the MFA in the future.
“I can understand why they want to do the first showing of the whole sculpture, and I respect that,’’ Getchell said.
“After they join it and show it there and have a celebration,’’ she said, “if they want to lend it here, we’d be happy to consider that.’’
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.