The Cleveland Museum of Art should be praised for its diligence in researching a valuable marble portrait bust of Drusus Minor, and for working in full cooperation with Italian scholars and authorities. When previously unknown photographs from 1926 were unearthed by Italian scholars between 2011-2013, it was discovered that the bust had been found in a 1926 excavation in Sessa Aurunca, in the province of Campania, Italy. The bust had been transferred to the archaeological Museum Antiquarium di Sessa Aurunca, where it was stored. It is now believed to have been stolen from the Sessa Aurunca museum in 1944 by occupying troops.
The Cleveland Museum of Art made the appropriate decision to return the bust of Drusus voluntarily to Italy. No US museum would follow any other policy; an item stolen from an institution, whether museum or church, must be returned, no matter how long ago it was taken or how convoluted its ownership history has been.
The elegant portrait of Drusus is popular among museum visitors, not only because of its beautiful carving and lustrous surfaces; it expresses the undoubted forcefulness and arrogance of the son of the Emperor Tiberius. Drusus is well-remembered for his bloodthirsty and cruel nature and for the scandal associated with his early death, poisoned by his wife Livilla and her lover, the Praetorian prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus.
Cleveland Museum director William Griswold said, “It is disappointing, even devastating, to lose a great object,” he said. “On the other hand, the transfer of this object to Italy is so clearly the appropriate outcome that, disappointed though I may be, one can hardly question whether this is the right thing to do.”
Dario Franceschini, Italy’s Minister of Fine Arts was quoted in a joint statement as saying that there has been “an important and fruitful cultural agreement,” and “full cooperation of CMA with the Italian authorities.”
Among the many important points that critics of the museum have missed, is that the 1926 photographs of this marble portrait head, one of the most popular and highly publicized objects in the Cleveland Museum, were not published by Italy until about 90 years later. The head of Drusus was never identified as having been in an Italian museum collection for almost 20 years. (Even now there is nothing about the theft on the Sessa Aurunca museum website.) No evidence documenting the theft is available from Italian authorities even now, 73 years after the theft is said to have occurred. No one in Italy made the connection between the missing items from the museum and the 2004 illustrated catalog of the Druot auction house Paris sale. Over and over again, it has been shown that the failure of authorities to catalog and make public the records of stolen objects is the chief impediment to museums, collectors, art dealers and auction houses being able to perform due diligence on objects prior to acquisition.
What makes the allegations against the museum by archaeological bloggers and others so outrageous, is that not only the Cleveland Museum but everyone else (including the same bloggers) were convinced that the bust had come from North Africa. Gabriella Angeleti, writing in The Art Newspaper on April 19, 2017, says that the connection between the Drusus head in the Cleveland Museum and the 1926 photographs was not made until Giuseppe Scarpati of the University of Naples published an article in 2014 suggesting that French occupation troops looted the bust from the museum, and that it was later taken by North African troops operating in the same locale.
A lengthy article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer by Steven Litt plotted the course of the sculpture’s history. The marble bust was purchased by the museum in 2012 from Phoenix Ancient Art. It had previously been sold at auction in Paris in 2004, where it was illustrated, after which a Parisian dealer associated with the seller had provided a certificate of origin stating it had belonged to a Fernand Sintes, who said he inherited it while living in Algiers. (Sintes’ statement that the bust had been owned by his family since the 19th century was clearly false, but the rest appears likely.) Director William Griswold of the Cleveland Museum said that, “We have every reason to believe it was in Algeria through the ’50s, but that’s not fully documented.”
The Cleveland Museum followed due diligence standards – and more. It posted the bust on the Association of Art Museum Directors Art Registry, a public, online, database. It worked to fill in the gaps in provenance after the purchase, contacting Sintes and others. Michael Bennett, the CMA’s curator continued to research the artwork, however, and raised additional questions about its origins.
Finally, in an article published in 2014, Scarpati connected the images in the two old photographs with the museum’s marble bust. When the museum learned of the connection, it contacted the Italian police authorities and proposed working together to research the sculpture.
Griswold said that the museum was able to, “establish to our satisfaction that the [Drusus] head is the same as the one in the  photograph, and the head in the photograph was in all likelihood removed from the museum at Sessa Aurunca.”
The marble bust has already been removed from its gallery at the Cleveland museum, and will be returned promptly to Italy. It is not known what the intention of the Italian cultural authorities is regarding the Drusus head, or whether it will be returned to the archaeological museum from which it was stolen in 1944.
Images: 1926 images of inventory of the Museum Antiquarium di Sessa Aurunca, The Art Newspaper; Portrait Head of Drusus Minor, probably after AD 23. Roman, North Africa. Marble; h. 35 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 2012.29, Cleveland Museum of Art.