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Tracing Treasures of Ancient Rome to a Village That Looted Its Own Heritage

Archaeologists and excavation site workers recreate the position of ancient bronzes of Roman emperors that once filled a shrine at Bubon in what is now modern Turkey.Credit…Ci Demi for The New York Times

One towering ancient bronze was found last year in the Sutton Place apartment of a notable New York philanthropist. Another this year in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A third bronze, the head of a young Roman boy, was seized from Fordham University in March.

Each of these ancient artifacts, and a half dozen more like them, are believed to have once graced an elaborate shrine in a region that is now part of Turkey. Erected by locals to honor the Roman Empire at a time when it ruled that part of the world, the shrine in the ancient city of Bubon featured a pantheon of emperors, experts say.

So Lucius Verus, it’s thought, stood next to Marcus Aurelius, his adoptive brother with whom he ruled. The statue of Septimius Severus was beside those of his wife and children. The emperors Valerian and Commodus once stood on their own plinths nearby.

In 1994, a Turkish archaeologist, Jale Inan, published a book, “Latest Research on the Sebasteion of Bubon and Its Statues,” in which she plotted the location of the bronzes as they appeared in ancient times.

But just decades ago, according to investigators from the Turkish government and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, this set of rare, larger-than-life bronzes came to be scattered around the world. Individual statues ended up in a variety of affluent homes and prestigious museums.

Now, relying on newly discovered records and interviews with regretful, at times tearful, farmers now in their 70s, the investigators say they have been able to reconstruct what happened. They say men from a nearby village found the bronzes buried on a hillside, beginning in the late 1950s and, acting in tandem over a period of years, dug up the statues, often working in large groups to facilitate their excavation. Many were then sold to an antiquities dealer they knew as “American Bob.”

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