More than 50 years ago, farmers uncovered an archaeological treasure trove at Bubon, a Roman site in southwestern Turkey. The area, likely a shrine used to worship the emperor and his family, contained several rare bronze statues of Roman emperors and empresses.
“Had its contents not vanished, it would have been one of the most stunning archaeological discoveries of the 20th century,” writes Elizabeth Marlowe, director of Colgate University’s museum studies program, in Hyperallergic.
Rather than reporting the find to the government, as required by law, locals sold the statues, which were then smuggled out of the country.
“The looting back then was done as a commercial enterprise for the villagers,” Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the Manhattan district attorney’s office’s antiquities trafficking unit, tells the New York Times’ Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley.
Now, one of these statues is heading back to Turkey: Dating to 225 C.E., the headless bronze figure had been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2011. Experts think it depicts the Roman emperor Septimius Severus.
The work is one of a dozen artifacts repatriated to Turkey last month following investigations carried out by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. The collection also includes a sculpture of a head dating to 290 C.E., as well as a bronze head of Caracalla, the eldest son of Septimius Severus, made between 211 and 217 C.E. In total, the items are valued at $33 million.
“Many of these pieces, which come from archaeological sites that have been the persistent target of looting, have been circulating across the globe for decades,” says District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr. in a statement. “Now, they are finally being returned to Turkey, where they rightfully belong,”
Some of the farmers involved in the looting back in the ’60s are helping investigators, examining images from catalogs and museum websites to identify pieces they had stolen, reports the Times.
Of the items returning to Turkey, three came from the Met—including the Septimius Severus statue, valued at $25 million, which was seized in February. This year, the district attorney’s office has so far seized 17 items from the museum, reports Artnet’s Sarah Cascone.
Several other items were recovered during a criminal investigation into the collection of Shelby White, a philanthropist, art collector and Met trustee.
Authorities officially returned the 12 items to Turkey at a ceremony last month. Reyhan Ozgur, Turkey’s consul general in New York, said that the repatriation “sends a clear and strong message to all smugglers, dealers and collectors that illegal purchase, possession and sale of cultural artifacts will have consequences,” per the Times.
The latest repatriation is part of a growing worldwide effort to return stolen antiquities to their rightful owners. In particular, the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which launched its antiquities trafficking unit in 2017, has been intensifying its efforts to investigate these cases.