By Carol Vogel - 06/22/2004
The Cleveland Museum of Art has bought what it thinks is an ancient bronze sculpture of Apollo the Lizard Slayer by the classical Greek sculptor Praxiteles. If it is authentic, it will be one of the most important ancient bronzes in an American museum.
About five feet tall, the bronze Apollo originally depicted the young god pulling back a laurel sapling with his left hand while holding an arrow aimed at a lizard with his right. The image is known from two marble copies from the Roman period, in the Louvre and the Vatican.
Of the few known Greek sculptors of the fourth century B.C., Praxiteles is considered among the greatest. But ancient Greek sculpture was so fashionable under the Roman Empire that it was heavily copied by Roman artists, which makes it difficult for scholars to date.
The Roman historian Pliny the Elder saw what he considered to be the original sculpture in the first century. "Although Praxiteles was more successful and therefore more famous for his marble sculptures, he nevertheless also created beautiful works in bronze," Pliny wrote. "He made a youthful Apollo called Sauroktonos (Lizard Slayer), waiting in ambush for a creeping lizard, close at hand, with an arrow."
If the work is Greek and of the classical period, it will be the only monumental Greek bronze sculpture attributed to any Greek master through literary sources.
The purchase was made after a year of research, but the museum acknowledges that it has taken a gamble on whether it is Greek or Roman. "It's very important for us to make claims we can prove," said Katharine Lee Reid, director of the Cleveland Museum. "We all feel strongly that it is early and very important."
The museum had the bronze tested, Ms. Reid said, and the examination identified several stylistic and technical characteristics consistent with Greek monumental sculpture from the fourth and third centuries B.C., as well as techniques that continued into the Roman period. The bronze was cast in several sections and joined together. Additional indications that the work dates from the classical Greek era include the copper inlays of the lips and nipples, the stone insert of the right eye, the thick casting and the type of patches used for repairs, as well as the corrosion of the surface and the overall condition.
"When I saw it in Geneva, I thought it had all the hallmarks of being Greek," said Michael Bennett, the curator of Greek and Roman art at the Cleveland.
The museum bought the sculpture for an undisclosed price from Phoenix Ancient Art, a gallery with locations in Geneva and New York run by two brothers, Hicham and Ali Aboutaam. In December 2003, Hicham Aboutaam was arrested in New York and charged with bringing a silver drinking vessel into the United States from Iran and falsely claiming it came from Syria. He was released on bail and has yet to be indicted.
When asked about doing business with Phoenix Ancient Art, both Mr. Bennett and Ms. Reid said the gallery had sold antiquities to major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that they had done extensive research on the sculpture's provenance.
Ernst-Ulrich Walter, a lawyer now in his 80's, discovered the sculpture in 1994 after he had reclaimed his family's estate in the reunited Germany. The bronze was in pieces. Four years later, Dr. Lucia Marinescu, the former director of the National History Museum of Romania, toured the estate and saw the work still in fragments. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Walter sold it to a Dutch dealer, Mr. Bennett said. From 1994 to 2002 it passed through several hands, he said, but he is not sure who owned the piece during those years.
Officials at the Cleveland Museum said the sculpture was restored in 1994. It is missing the tree, the right arm from above the elbow and the left arm from the shoulder. The left hand and part of the forearm exist, detached from the figure, as does the lizard.
The Cleveland Museum has shown the work to several leading antiquities experts. David G. Mitten, a curator of ancient and Byzantine art at the Harvard University Art Museums, said: "There will be intense, ongoing debate about the precise date and attribution of this figure. What is already clear, however, is that we are most likely in the presence of an original Greek bronze statue of the middle to the second half of the fourth century B.C. or perhaps the very early third century B.C."
If it turns out that the work is indeed by Praxiteles, it will be an important discovery. If not, a Roman bronze is not nearly as historically significant.
Sometimes museums never know. In 1983 the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles bought a marble sculpture of a naked youth or kourus for about $9 million that many scholars now believe was made by a modern forger.
The Cleveland Museum plans a symposium on the work in April 2006 and is publishing a monograph as well. "It will be studied for years to come," Ms. Reid said.