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Arts

How could smuggled Roman art have ended up at the Worcester Art Museum?

Seizure of $5 million bronze bust is part of broader criminal investigation by Manhattan DA’s office into looted works at multiple museums.

The exterior of the Worcester Art Museum in 2012.Erik Jacobs

For decades, the ancient bronze bust of a woman, perhaps a daughter of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, commanded pride of place at the Worcester Art Museum, anchoring the institution’s collection of ancient art.

Today, that same statue is in the possession of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, one piece of a sprawling smuggling investigation that has so far executed seven separate warrants to recover some 24 stolen antiquities. Investigators have seized the objects, which date from the eighth century BCE through second century CE, from a private collector, an auction house, and museums in New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office declined to comment specifically on the Worcester seizure, but confirmed Tuesday via email that it was part of an “ongoing criminal investigation into a smuggling network involving antiquities looted from Bubon in Turkiye and trafficked through Manhattan.”

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New York Judge Ruth Pickholz issued the warrant to seize the bust on June 8, giving authorities 10 days to retrieve the object. She added that the bronze statue, which dates from 160-180 CE, was valued at $5 million.

In a statement to the Globe Tuesday, the museum said the Manhattan DA’s investigation had “developed important new information not previously known to the Museum that supplemented information in the Museum’s files.”

“The Museum turned the bust over to the District Attorney’s Office which will repatriate it as that Office sees fit,” read the statement from the museum, which declined to provide additional details.

The museum first announced the seizure on Sept. 1, when its director, Matthias Waschek, thanked investigators for the new information, adding: “The ethical standards applicable to museums are much changed since the 1960s, and the Museum is committed to managing its collection consistent with modern ethical standards.”

According to the work’s ownership history, the museum originally purchased the bronze in 1966 from the late Robert Hecht, a controversial antiquities dealer who was investigated during his lifetime for antiquities trafficking.

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The museum said Hecht provided “limited information about the object’s history,” and the museum’s provenance for the work states only that it was “found in southwestern Anatolia (the Roman Province of Lycia) in early 1966.”

The Manhattan district attorney's office has seized "Portrait of a Lady (A Daughter of Marcus Aurelius?)" (160-180 CE) from the Worcester Art Museum.Worcester Art Museum

Elizabeth Marlowe, an art historian at Colgate University, said the bust at Worcester — like the large statue of Marcus Aurelius seized from the Cleveland Museum of Art last month — is part of a trove of bronze statuary allegedly looted by villagers from Bubon in the 1960s.

“All these pieces start surfacing on the market in the 1960s,” she said. “The dealers are passing on the report of where these came from, so it’s like the worst-kept secret in the world.”

The same investigation seized a large bronze statue valued at $25 million from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March.

Marlowe has called it “very possible” that Hecht sold the entire group.

In addition to its seizures at the Met and the Cleveland museum, the New York district attorney’s investigation has confiscated objects from Christie’s; Fordham Museum of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman Art; and from the private collection of longtime Met donor Shelby White.

In its earlier announcement, the Worcester museum said it had “never previously received a claim or learned of any defect in ownership” of the bust, adding that after considering “new evidence” the museum believes “the bronze was likely stolen and improperly imported.”

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On Tuesday, the museum’s statement to the Globe said it took its responsibilities of object stewardship seriously.

“With its limited resources, the Museum has not been able to prioritize provenance research of its existing collection,” it read. “Based in part on its experience with the bronze bust, the Museum will be hiring a provenance research specialist and increasing its scrutiny of its existing collection.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him @malcolmgay.