In 1966, an ancient bronze bust found its way to the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. Believed to depict the daughter of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, it was titled “Portrait of a Lady (A Daughter of Marcus Aurelius?),” and sat on display in its new home for decades – until now.[1]

The ancient piece was recently seized as a part of an ongoing investigation into antiquities smuggled out from what is now Turkey.[2] The artifact joins the long list of many seized by the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, a unique group composed of prosecutors, criminal investigators, and art specialists in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, who seized over 3,600 antiquities that in total valued over $200 million as of 2021.[3] The team has based its previous seizures on New York laws, specifically the “reasonable inquiry” provision with respect to the possession of stolen property (in other words, presuming that an individual knew that an object was stolen if said individual failed to make a reasonable inquiry into the object’s ownership), and has successfully returned over 1,300 antiquities to their place of origin.[4]

Dating back to 2012, Turkey has been vocal about its concerns and launched an international campaign for the repatriation of works in a vast number of museums, claiming that such works were taken from its soil.[5] The list of the museums whose collections were inquired about include recognizable names such as the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.[6] Although the claims were based on whether the art objects were statistically linked to Turkey and if museums had official permits showing that the artworks were legally exported rather than physical evidence,[7] these calls for repatriating ancient objects in Western museums to the lands where they originated are not unique. Rather it’s a part of a larger dialogue as countries such as Nigeria, Greece, and Ethiopia demand the repatriation of artifacts housed in Western institutions.[8] The seizure of the ancient bust comes off the heels of the ordered seizure of a bronze statue believed to be Marcus Aurelius that was previously housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art.[9] While the fate of both pieces are yet to be determined, the Worcester Art Museum has stated that it plans to hire a provenance research specialist and increase scrutiny of its existing collection.[10] Ultimately, this case is yet another example of the rising number of items being seized amidst government claims and U.S. law enforcement efforts as the “Indiana Jones era” comes to an end.[11]


[1] Alyssa Lukpat, Manhattan Prosecutors Seize Roman Bust From Massachusetts Museum in Smuggling Investigation, Wall Street J. (Sept. 6, 2023),

[2] Id.

[3] Ariel Sabar, The Tomb Raiders of the Upper East Side: Inside the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, Atlantic (Nov. 23, 2021),

[4] Id.

[5] Steven Litt, Turkey’s Inquiry into 22 Treasures at the Cleveland Museum of Art Lacks Hard Proof of Looting, Arts (May 27, 2012),

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Robin Scher, Back to Where They Once Belonged: Proponents of Repatriation of African Artworks Take Issue with the Past—and Present and Future, Artnews (June 26, 2018),

[9] Karen Matthews, Statue Believed to Depict Marcus Aurelius Seized From Cleveland Museum in Looting Investigation, AP News: Entertainment (Aug. 31, 2023),

[10] Lukpat, supra note 1.

[11] Graham Bowley, For U.S. Museums With Looted Art, the Indiana Jones Era Is Over, N.Y. Times (June 20, 2023),,found%20in%20many%20of%20America%E2%80%99s%20most%20prestigious%20museums.