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November 16, 2023

The Ephebes of Pedro Abad are on exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

After a complex period of study and years of delicate restoration to repair their fragile bodies, the Ephebes of Pedro Abad went on display this week at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. There, for the first time, the statues can be viewed as they were meant to be seen, standing on their own two feet, vertically.  Each of the recovered bronzes constitute a milestone in the study of ancient art originating during the Early Roman Empire from ancient Hispania.

Beautiful, as well as extremely rare, the journey of their recovery began in January 2012, when rumours began to circulate regarding the extraordinary discovery of two bronze statues representing pubescent male atheletes.  The sore spot being, the finders of the bronzes apparently had no intention of turning the ancient artefacts over to Spain's cultural authorities, as is required by law.  Instead, their handlers  were shopping the statues around, looking for potential buyers, preferably someone with deep pockets. 

Over the following months, officers in Spain assigned to the Jaén Provincial Judicial Police Brigade, the Policía Nacional, and the Guardia Civil, worked to trace the statues' handlers.  In an operation investigators code named Operación Bronce, law enforcement agents sifted through dead ends and leads, and were eventually able to trace the handler's occupation to that of a transporter.  That in turn lead to finding where he lived in the country.

Through tapped phones detectives were next able to identify and geolocate several other Spanish intermediaries, men who resided in Jaén and Lora del Rio, who spoke with the possessors and who had the contacts necessary to fence material farther up the ancient art supply chain.  Officers learned of a plot to sell the statues for €3million a piece, to an Italian buyer who was believed to have the money, the means, and the black market network necessary to launder illicit antiquities, both big and small, through upscale channels within the lucrative ancient art market.  

When the Italian began preparing to come to Spain, the police knew they needed to act quickly.  When enough evidence of a crime had been established, agents made a requests to the ruling judge to search three properties, two, a home in Cordoba and a home in Pedro Abad for evidence, and a third, where they suspected the bronze statues were likely stored.  

On March 21, 2012 agents from the Specialised and Violent Crime Unit ( UDEV ) of the Jaén Provincial Judicial Police Brigade conducted  a strategically arranged raid on a property located on the El Palancar farm, located in the municipality of Pedro Abad (Córdoba).  There, the Apollonian and the Dionysian ephebes were located, stored in a bodega, carelessly wrapped, like Egyptian mummies in simple white paper.  

But the two ancient boys had seen much better days.  Unwrapped by police, the ephebe were a torturous mess of mangled and missing body parts.  One had his head and genitals lopped off, and both had violently suffered amputated arms and broken hands.  Like victims of some terrible accident, in addition to the decapitation, when spread out on the ground, officers could see a gaping gash on one of the statue's legs and a deep and penetrating wound to one of the boy's abdomen.  

But even in their wreaked and plundered state, still caked in soil and encrustations, it was easy to see that the bronzes were important, depicting beautiful sculpted nudes which reflected idealised body proportions and athleticism.  Based on their decorative characteristics and postures, the bronzes appeared to be "silent servants," or what Homer and Lucretius called golden boys, decorative statues designed by their creators to be a representation of an actual servant, whose primary purpose was to carry lamps or trays on their outstretched arms.  Symbolic as well as decorative, statues such as these have been found in triclinium, the banquet rooms of important Roman villas.  

Functional as well as beautiful, these types of bronzes are thought to have provided ancient diners with fanciful attendants who tended to their needs, but who never tired.  For Spain, the recovered pair have incalculable historical, archaeological and artistic value.  Aside from these two, there is only one other known ephebe recorded as having been found in Spain.  All three originate in Andalusia in the southernmost tip of the country.  And all three come from sites located within a radius of about 100 kilometres" from one another (he third being found in Antequera).  Each ephebe comes from archaeological sites which dot the Roman Bética route in ancient Hispania. 

How rare is rare?

In total, the number of bronze statues representing ephebe which have survived through history, can be counted on less than ten fingers. To understand their rarity, it's enough to consider were some of the other bronze "servants" are housed.  The Apollo of Lillebonne is located in the Musée du Louvre, while the Young Man of Magdalensberg resides in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Statue of an ephebe from the Bay of Marathon is at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.  

The Idolino is on display at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze and farther south in Italy, another bronze of this type was recovered during excavations at the House of the Citharist in Pompeii.  That one became part of the collection of the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Naples and seventy-five years after his discovery, in 1925, Amedeo Maiuri excavated another, less than two blocks away on the Via dell’Abbondanza.

But what happened to the would-be smugglers?

On 19 September 2018 at the Juzgado de Primera Instancia nº 1, the Court of First Instance, in Córdoba, the defence and the prosecution reached an agreement resulting in the two brothers from Pedro Abad first charged with the alleged commission of an attempted smuggling, pleading guilty to the misappropriation of historical heritage assets.  The pair received a a lighter prison sentence of six months, instead of the potential two years and two months requested earlier by the prosecutors, had their case gone to trial.  By pleading out to the lessor charge, the pair also avoided potentially high fines, in the millions. 

And the statues?

After their recovery, the Apolíneo and Dionisíaco ephebes were carefully studied. Archaeologists determined that the Roman bronze sculptures were ascribable to the High Imperial era (1st-2nd century CE), and were copies of Greek originals from the 5th century BC or works inspired by these.  In May 2019 the ephebes were each approved to register in the General Catalog of Andalusian Historical Heritage (CGPHA) as an Asset of Cultural Interest (BIC), declared BIC by the Governing Council.  Humorously, they are listed in the category of Furniture. 

Following information obtained from the investigation, it was determined that the statues were found together, which is unique in and of itself, near a bend in the Guadalquivir river (the ancient Baetis).  There they would have been part of the decoration of a Roman villa located near the ancient Roman city of Sacili Martialium, identified within the zone of Alcurrucén near the Via Augusta in the municipality of Pedro Abad. 

Due to their extensive damage, the Ephebes of Pedro Abad underwent two and a half years of delicate and lengthy conservation at the Andalusian Institute of Historical Heritage (IAPH) to ensure their formal integrity.  

Gammographic studies were carried out which provided information about the condition of the statues allowing conservators to understand and observe key aspects that are not visible in direct observation, without the need to manipulate or take samples. This played an important role in pre-intervention studies as it made it  possible to detect cracks, fissures, welds, and reinforcement plates.  Afterwards, the bronzes were fitted with internal structures and the bases needed to allow them to be displayed as they were always meant to be seen, vertically. 

Given the amount of work involved ARCA would like to congratulate everyone who have made this reality possible: from the detectives, to the conservators, to the archaeologists, to the curators, and the careful transporters.  Without them, these pieces might never have been returned to the people of Spain.  

The Ephebes of Pedro Abad will remain on exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía through March 4, 2024 within the framework of the official program of the Picasso Celebration 1973-2023.   Go see them for yourself if you get the chance.