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Met Museum turns over another relic with disputed past to prosecutors


Manhattan prosecutors have taken custody of an ancient bull’s head that was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because of concerns that the antiquity was looted from a Lebanese storage area in the 1980s during Lebanon’s civil war.

Met Museum turns over another relic with disputed past to prosecutors
The head of an ancient marble sculpture of a bull on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art 
is at the center of a legal case [Credit: William and Lynda Beierwaltes]
Met officials said that one of their curators raised concerns about the artifact after researching it last year, prompting the museum to alert Lebanese officials, who asked the American authorities to step in and retrieve it.

The 2,300-year-old marble artwork, about a foot tall, was turned over to the office of the Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance last month by museum officials.

The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.

The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael H. Steinhardt, in 2010. Mr. Steinhardt lent the relic to the Met that year, but after learning that Lebanon was disputing its provenance, he asked the Beierwaltes to take it back and compensate him.

The Beierwaltes are also suing the antiquities directorate in Lebanon as part of a federal lawsuit in which they argue that neither the Lebanese government nor Manhattan prosecutors have offered convincing proof that the item was stolen. The lawsuit also cites property rights, cultural patrimony laws, statutes of limitations and jurisdictional issues as grounds for the sculpture’s return to them.

Their court papers assert that federal prosecutors have previously reviewed the case and chosen not to challenge the Beierwaltes’ ownership.

“We believe the district attorney’s position is ill-founded,” William G. Pearlstein, a lawyer for the Beierwaltes, said in a statement, adding: “The Beierwaltes are bona fide purchasers with clean hands. By contrast, for more than 50 years, Lebanon has failed take any action domestically or internationally to report any theft of the bull’s head.”

Met Museum turns over another relic with disputed past to prosecutors
The bull’s head is about 2,300 years old [Credit: William and Lynda Beierwaltes]
Manhattan prosecutors, who received the item from the Met after obtaining a warrant for it on July 6, declined to comment on the case. The lawsuit says the district attorney’s office has sent a letter demanding that the Beierwaltes “restitute the bull’s head to Lebanon” because the office believes it was stolen from there.

Reached by phone in Beirut, Sarkis Khoury, head of Lebanon’s antiquities office, said, “We will do all we can to repatriate this item.”

In a statement, the Met said: “Upon a Met curator’s discovery that this item on loan may have been stolen from government storage during the Lebanese civil war, the museum took immediate action. We contacted the Lebanese government and the lender, we took the item off display, and we have been working with federal and state authorities, which recently involved delivering the head of the bull to the Manhattan D.A. upon its request.”

The item has a rich history. According to museum and Lebanese officials, it was first cataloged in 1967 by a Swiss archaeologist excavating the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon, Lebanon. It is believed to be of Greek origin, was warehoused in the city of Byblos, the site of a looting spree in the 1980s.

This is the second time in recent weeks that the Met has been asked to turn over an item to Manhattan prosecutors, though the circumstances are far different in each instance. Last week, the Met surrendered an ancient vase that it bought at auction in 1989 because of concerns that it might have been looted from Italy.

In that case, a forensic archaeologist approached law enforcement officials last May with evidence that the item, known as a krater, had been looted from an ancient grave in Italy. In an interview, he said that he approached law enforcement after becoming frustrated that museum officials had not responded to him about evidence he shared with them in 2014.

But the museum said that several years ago, after reviewing the archaeologist’s evidence, it had contacted the Italian authorities as part of an effort to resolve the ownership of the item. The Met said that those discussions were continuing when Manhattan prosecutors served a warrant on July 24 seeking possession of the vase, which the museum delivered the next day.

Author: Tom Mashberg | Source: The New York Times [August 02, 2017]
TANN

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