For decades, the whereabouts of a sculpture stolen from a Tuscan chapel remained unknown. It turns out the piece may have been hiding at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) nearly the whole time.
At least, that was the assertion made by a group of nine Italian senators in a July 2020 parliamentary session. At the time, the group urged the country’s Minister of Cultural Heritage to pursue the restitution of the artwork to Italy.
Since then, however, the senators claim, their case has not been acted upon by cultural officials on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The piece, a five-and-a-half-foot-tall terracotta relief by Italian sculptor Benedetto Buglioni, depicts the Madonna enthroned with the Christ Child on her knee, the two of them flanked on either side by Saints Francis and Giovanni Gualberto. Created around 1510–20, the sculpture is glazed with pigments made from crushed glass, imbuing it with a uniquely vibrant color palette that hasn’t faded with time.
It was gifted to the CMA in 1921 by Jeptha H. Wade II, a prominent industrialist who had helped co-found the museum eight years prior. According to the provenance report on the museum’s website, Wade purchased the piece in Paris that same year. Before that, it had been acquired by the German-born, Paris-based dealer Raoul Heilbronner in 1911, then confiscated by the French government in 1914 at the dawn of the First World War.
Those who believe the sculpture was stolen from Italy suggest the crime took place years earlier. Per a report by the Valdarno Post, it was taken by a group of thieves from a chapel in Ponte agli Stolli, a hamlet outside Figline and Incisa Valdarno in Central Italy, in 1904 or 1905.
The artwork—or at least one that looks very similar—can be found in the Carabinieri’s database of stolen cultural heritage. Still, former Italian Senator Margherita Corrado, who led the 2020 investigation into the sculpture, has said that neither her country’s police nor its ministry of culture has sought to have the sculpture returned.
“The goal,” Corrado told the Cleveland news outlet WEWS Channel 5 in a statement, “is to achieve the result that the Figline community has been waiting for for over a century, namely the return of the [altarpiece] to Italy.”
Representatives from the CMA did not immediately respond to Artnet News’s request for comment, but Colleen Criste, the institution’s deputy director and chief philanthropy officer, told Cleveland.com that the Italian article is “the only thing we’ve heard about this claim.”
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