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An ancient Apollo statue landed in Cleveland and touched off an international outcry 

After three weeks in Europe, Michael Bennett was ready to come home. The curator had been visiting dealers across the continent, searching for new pieces for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

But as he was leaving Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealership in Switzerland, his eyes strayed to a pointy figure draped in black cloth. "What's that?" he asked Hicham and Ali Aboutaam, the shop's owners.

The Aboutaams smiled. It's our newest acquisition, one said. It's quite special.

The brothers whisked off the cloth. Bennett couldn't breathe.

On the table lay remnants of an ancient bronze statue. Even in fragments, he could see the outlines of a graceful adolescent. His back was strong and lean. His left leg curled behind his right. Wide almond eyes stared at the ground.

This wasn't just any sculpture. This was Apollo the lizard slayer, created by Praxiteles in the fourth century B.C. The Greek sculptor was the first to craft a nude female body and the first to portray gods as intimate, human-like creatures. Praxiteles' work changed the direction of Western art — yet no living person had seen an original piece. Historians believed they perished long ago.

Bennett instinctively thought he was looking at an original. And if it was indeed authentic, it was impossible to quantify how important the piece was. "It's as if there were no existing works by Michelangelo — then suddenly one appeared," he explains.

The curator immediately phoned Katharine Lee Reid, the Cleveland museum's director at the time. He had to act quickly. Reid gave her consent.

The Aboutaams and Bennett talked for hours. By the time they were done, the statue was promised to Cleveland.

On the plane home, Bennett couldn't sleep. Worry sank into his gut. It couldn't be this easy, he thought. The piece was too important. Something would go wrong.

He just didn't know what.

The art world had changed since Bennett's Harvard days in the '80s, when professors lectured about the importance of preservation. "We are mortal, but art is permanent," Bennett says.

At the time, budding curators learned that their principal responsibility was to protect art for future generations. In essence, they were its legal guardians. It mattered not where a piece had come from, just so long as it was safe.

So great discoveries like the Apollo were heralded, their finders dined and celebrated.

But the art world was forced to confront a new landscape with the fall of East Germany. That's when the West got its first glimpse of Nazi records, proving that many famous works housed in the world's museums had been stolen from Jewish homes. Holocaust survivors and their kin began a very public campaign to get them back.

Italian and Greek authorities jumped into the debate. They too believed that tombs had been raided and antiquities stolen from their soil. Suddenly, the conversation turned from preservation to rightful ownership. And museums, long seen as noble custodians, found themselves in the unfamiliar role of bad guys.

"It became apparent that the museums were on the wrong side of the acquisitions debate," says Jenifer Neils, a professor at Case Western Reserve.

The antiquities market boasts annual sales of $100 to $200 million. For dealers, there's always been an incentive to hide the history of a work. With fortunes to be made, many had adopted a don't-ask-don't-tell policy.

Museums weren't particularly diligent either. In many cases, it was virtually impossible to prove that an item had been stolen. Tomb robbers, after all, aren't prone to videotaping their raids. So there was rarely concrete evidence of a work's illicit travels.

Then suddenly there was.

Giacomo Medici was one of the world's most connected dealers, supplying the globe with classic Italian art. But Italian police had long been suspicious of Medici. With the aid of Swiss authorities, they raided Medici's Geneva warehouse in 1995. There they found hundreds of photos, clearly showing that much of the work he sold had been stolen from Italian tombs.

One of Medici's closest associates was Robert Hecht, an American dealer who'd arranged hundreds of transactions between Medici and U.S. museums. In 2005, Italian police charged Hecht with conspiracy to traffic in looted art. It was the beginning of a massive treasure hunt.

Armed with tangible evidence and moral outrage, the Italian police started going after American museums, who could no longer feign ignorance. Mounting public pressure and the threat of massive lawsuits caused museums to react as they never had before. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York gave back 21 works, including a rare terra-cotta wine vase from 600 B.C. that had cost $1 million in 1972.

After much debate, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return 40 works. The Princeton University Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the University of Virginia Art Museum all returned pieces as well. Most of these works are now being displayed in Italy's Quirinal presidential palace.

The museums had no choice, explains Princeton's Cass Cliatt. "We examined all the facts and circumstances surrounding the purchase of each item questioned by the Italians. Our assessment of the questions led us to the conclusion that rightful ownership should rest in Italy."

The country's cultural ministry was jubilant. "Italy has won, but the Metropolitan has not lost," minister Rocco Buttiglione told the Associated Press after the first shipment. He was partially correct.

In exchange, Italy agreed to loan the museums works from its national collection. But the Americans were still forced to stomach huge financial losses. Some of the pieces had been purchased for millions.

Italy's success inspired other countries to make demands. And they would eventually find their way to University Circle.

Arriving back in Cleveland in 2004, Bennett felt understandably nervous. In this new world of paranoia, he was a suspect, not a hero. He hoped he was on solid ground, but the odds were against him.

Hicham and Ali Aboutaam readily admitted to gaps in the Apollo's ownership record. From what they were able to determine, the statue was owned by a German family in the early 1900s. World War II forced them to flee, leaving their belongings behind.

In the 1990s, a surviving member returned to the family estate after the fall of East Germany. In the backyard lay a pile of debris. He could only make out the bronzed head of a young man, a sculpted hand, the outline of a lizard.

The man vaguely recalled seeing the statue in the garden as a child, but he knew nothing of its history. Believing the cost of repair would be greater than its value, he sold the statue to a Dutch dealer in 1994, who in turn sold it to another collector, who then sold it to the Aboutaams in 2001 with the understanding that he'd remain anonymous.

"It's the sort of story that could be true," says David Gill, professor of ancient history at Swansea University in Wales. "But we also know from the Medici history that it's the same sort of story that was often invented to cover up."

Equally suspect were the Aboutaam brothers. The same year Bennett bought the Apollo, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Hicham for trading in looted Iranian art. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $5,000 fine.

Then an Egyptian court convicted Ali in absentia, sentencing him to 15 years for smuggling art to Switzerland. Aboutaam appealed and the conviction was later dropped. But the stain on the brothers' name remained.

"The [Aboutaam] name regularly pops up in association with people I'd call suspect," says Neil Brodie, a Stanford historian. Most dealers, he says, would be acutely "suspicious" of anything that passed through the brothers' hands.

Bennett dismissed the allegations. He'd been dealing with the brothers for years. In his experience, they'd been nothing but forthcoming and ethical.

But to ease suspicion, the Aboutaams granted Cleveland a year to study the Apollo's history. The museum spent thousands on forensic tests, and allowed scholars and historians to examine the materials. The German man who found the statue signed an affidavit testifying to his backyard discovery. The International Art Loss Register in New York, which tracks stolen art, found no claims on the piece. And research revealed that the statue had been fitted with a new base in the past century, proving that it hadn't been recently lifted from a tomb.

The findings were definitive: The statue was authentic. "Short of finding a vase that says Praxiteles made this, I don't think you could get much more certain about its origins," says David Mitten, a Harvard art history professor. "I think it's the most important classical Greek sculpture to come to a museum since World War I."

Bennett was glad to be part of the process. "I feel humbled really that I had a role in bringing it to Cleveland," he says.

The museum paid a reported $5.2 million for the Apollo and placed it proudly in the middle of its interior garden court. Visitors from around the world came to witness the statue.

The Louvre even called, asking whether it could borrow Apollo for a Praxiteles exhibit. In the art world, there was no greater honor. Cleveland readily agreed, even putting off its own international symposium on the statue.

And that's when the grenade landed.

In December 2006, a French news agency quoted an anonymous source within the Greek Ministry of Culture, who claimed the Apollo had been stolen. The piece hadn't been found in a backyard in Germany, the official declared, but "was probably sold illegally after it was found in the 1990s by an Italian vessel in international waters between Italy and Greece." No other details were offered.

Bennett was astonished. The claim was "so absurd I had to smile about it," he says. The museum's research showed no sign that the statue had spent time underwater.

Cleveland offered to share its research with Greek officials, but they weren't interested, Bennett claims. Instead, they threatened the Louvre. If the museum showcased the Apollo, Greece would take back 19 pieces it was loaning for the exhibit.

It seemed the initial crusade over stolen art had turned into something of a strong-arm game. Greece was no longer interested in producing evidence to back its claims. Museums were in retreat, and the Greeks were prepared to capitalize for the audience back home.

"This debate has nothing to do with scholarship and real curatorial work," says Harvard's Mitten. "It's just political aggrandizement."

Art writer Guy Weill Goudchaux concurs: "Greek nationalism is now threatening the freedom of exhibition curators. This is surely intolerable. It is time that the great museums of Europe and America made a united stand against cultural blackmail."

But the Louvre bowed out. With apologies to Cleveland, the Praxiteles show commenced without the only work believed to have been rendered by Praxiteles' hands.

The defeat still causes Bennett to seethe. So when the Italians also came calling, asking for dozens of pieces back, Cleveland was in no mood for concessions.

The Carabinieri's Tutela Patrimonio Cuturale, the Italian police force charged with prosecuting art theft, were also playing hardball, using legal pressure, ultimatums, and threats of blacklisting against American museums.

"The Italians wanted to make it very clear that [curators] have totally ignored their professional responsibilities," says Gill, who supports Italy's quest. "They decided to take actions that reminded [museums] quite forcibly that there's been wrongdoings, that they hadn't been diligent in the way they acquired archaeological objects."

Others called it by a different name: bullying.

"Italy found a very advantageous strategy of intimidation," says Harvard's Mitten, who believes American curators acquiesced too readily. "They buffaloed and blackmailed museums for things they had no title to. The only way to deal with these people is to play hardball with them."

Even as the Tutela Patrimonio Cuturale, known as the TPC, went after the major players, there'd been rumblings that Cleveland was on its short list of targeted museums. During the trial of dealer Robert Hecht, the Italians cited eight pieces Hecht had sold to Cleveland. And after the Metropolitan Museum agreed to return six works, Maurizio Fiorilli, an Italian prosecutor, noted that his country's focus was moving toward larger museums in Ohio.

But while Princeton, Boston, and Virginia rushed to make conciliatory announcements, Cleveland was largely silent. "I think the whole issue with the Apollo might have something to do with how they're choosing to deal with this," says one insider with close ties to the Cleveland museum.

The art world could only guess which pieces the Italians might have in their sights. Topping the list was the Medea calyx krater, a vase created in the fourth century B.C., one of the few works to have survived the period.

Up until 1990, the vase was part of the private collection of brothers Nelson and William Hunt, whose family made its fortune in oil. In the 1980s, they'd been caught violating securities laws by trying to corner the silver market. Each was fined $10 million.

To help cover the bill, the brothers put the Medea up for sale. Cleveland jumped, allegedly paying $400,000. The problem, however, was that the Hunts had acquired the work through Bob Hecht.

Cleveland had also bought a fourth century B.C. oil flask from Hecht. The piece features the Greek god Pan presenting a hare to an elegantly dressed woman. During Hecht's trial, the Italians alleged that the flask was one of 94 pieces the dealer had illegally trafficked.

But Cleveland officials refused to publicly discuss Italy's inquiries. Then late last year, Suzan Mazur, an investigative journalist who first reported the Medea's suspect provenance, produced a list of the items the TPC wanted returned from Cleveland. It covered more than 27 works — including a marble bust of Emperor Balbinus from the third century A.D. and a bronze statue of an Etruscan warrior from around 500 B.C.

Also on the list was the Apollo. It seems the Italians believed that the statue was rightfully theirs, claiming that it had been recovered from its national waters.

If the list was accurate, it meant the TPC were hoping to secure millions worth of art from Cleveland, gutting the museum's modest Roman collection.

Cleveland refuses to comment, other than to say it's held discussions with Italy. "It's supposed to be a confidential document," says spokesman James Kopniske. "I don't even know what's on it."

But talking to Bennett, one gets the sense that the museum won't be quick to wave a white flag. "Our policy is really straightforward," he says. "Anyone at anytime" can protest an item's status. And "If someone has information that proves [the piece was illegally purchased], the museum has an obligation to look at that evidence . . . The Cleveland Museum of Art wants to know as much as possible about the items in our exhibits."

At the same time, Bennett claims that all pieces are vigorously researched. Just because a dealer is charged doesn't mean all his deals were tainted. Hecht's case is ongoing.

But it's worth noting that in the half-dozen or so instances that a work has been challenged, Cleveland has yet to return a piece.

Today, the Apollo rests securely in the nether regions of the museum. There it will sit until the doors open in 2010 to a new Greek and Roman exhibit.

Meanwhile, life continues in its normal frenzy for Bennett. Between organizing new exhibits, he's working on a book about the Apollo. And later this month, he'll be touring Europe again.

He's very excited. After all, he says, brown eyes sparkling like winter ice, you never know what treasures might be unearthed.

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