A French museum has gotten one of its most valuable artifacts back thanks to the savviness of Dutch art detective Arthur Brand, nicknamed the “Indiana Jones of the art world,” who managed to find the statue of Roman god Bacchus almost half a century after it was stolen.
The Musee du Pays Chatillonnais in eastern France boats an impressive collection of Ancient Roman items discovered at the nearby archaeological dig site of Vertillum, where a Gallo-Roman village used to be located.
In December 1973, a heavy blow was dealt to this collection after thieves broke into the museum and snatched some 5,000 coins and several artifacts, including the statue of Bacchus.
The 40-centimeter-tall bronze sculpture of the Roman god of wine as a child dated back to the first century. In the late 1930s, it was displayed in Paris as part of an exhibition featuring the 50 most beautiful art treasures possessed by France.
It disappeared without a trace after the heist and was believed to have been lost for good for almost 50 years.
But on Wednesday, Brand handed the bronze Bacchus back to the director of the French museum, Catherine Monnet, during a ceremony held at a hotel in the Dutch capital, Amsterdam.
“When I saw it now for the first time, I just realized how much more beautiful it is than the copy we have had on display” since the original statue was stolen, Monnet told AFP.
Meanwhile, the art detective has shared the story of how he managed to track down one of the museum’s “most precious antiquities.”
Two years ago, he was contacted by an Austrian collector who was unable to find any information on a statue of a little boy he had bought legally on the art circuit, he said.
Brand was the perfect man for the job, having previously discovered ‘Buste de femme (Dora Maar)’ by Pablo Picasso and the so-called ‘Hitler's Horses’, the sculptures that once stood outside the Nazi leader’s chancellery in Berlin.
“When we could find no reference for such an important work existing anywhere, we realized that the work could have been stolen – and the hunt to find out what it is was on,” he recalled.
After months of investigating, the art sleuth finally came across the item in a 1927 edition of a French archaeological magazine. It said that the statue depicted Bacchus as a child and belonged to a French museum. Police records later confirmed the theft.
“The owner was shocked to learn that the piece had been stolen and wanted to give it back to the museum,” Brand said.
However, under French laws he was only entitled to a small amount of compensation for “safekeeping,” despite the statue likely costing millions of euros.
In order to do right by the owner, Brand persuaded British art collectors Brett and Aaron Hammond to sponsor half of the undisclosed sum, with rest of the statue’s price being paid for by Chatillon’s council.
As for the “Indiana Jones of the art world,” he has been granted free entrance to the Musee du Pays Chatillonnais for the rest of his life, Monnet said.