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Two halves of “The Weary Herakles” to reunite

The two halves of “The Weary Heracles” are to be united again after thirty years. Many questions about the case still need to answered though.

SAFE [1]

Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Two halves of “The Weary Herakles” to reunite, but…

For those concerned about doing the right thing about cultural heritage, the case of the “Weary Herakles” has awaited resolution for the past three decades. Naturally, there is a sense of relief when Geoff Edgers reported that the statue will be “made whole” after all this time, referring to the apparent agreement to return the top part of the statue to Turkey and the rejoining of its two halves. Yet, many questions remain unanswered: When will it return to Turkey? Why now? What about other objects at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts? What about other museums?

This statue of Herakles (who leans wearily against his club after performing his Labors) is a textbook illustration of dubious provenance: ownership attributed to the dealer’s mother who got it from some other dealer before her, right from the start. But, “[t]he best evidence for pillage … is the fact that the upper half of the torso was unknown to the world before 1981,” wrote Roger Atwood in the book Stealing History.

What we do know about the statue is that it was discovered before 1980 at Perge, near the Turkish town of Atalya, by looters who took the upper half, which was then smuggled and sold to the US collectors Leon Levy (now deceased) and Shelby White in 1981, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it remained on display for many years. When Turkish authorities discovered the bottom half of the Herakles in the ground at Perge, they demanded the Boston MFA return the upper half. After the Museum denied their fragment came from Turkey, the Turkish authorities shipped an exact replica of the lower half of the statue to Boston. Even though the two halves fit together perfectly, the Boston MFA continued to deny Turkey’s claim, earning the museum a place on Colin Renfrew’s list of “quite disgraceful” museums for “supporting and financing the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage.”

While the Boston Globe’s reporting of the welcome news is otherwise fine, the notion that “Weary Herakles on its own is not that incredibly significant, not a piece by Michelangelo…” presumably referring to its artistic qualities, is only partially true. An object’s significance lies not only in how it looks. To the people of Turkey, as Jason Reslin pointed out, the “Weary Herakles” is “a very big deal”.

But wherever the statue is, it is certainly preferable that the two halves be reunited. The Museum’s agreement that the proper home is Turkey is the right decision. Finally.