The Victoria and Albert Museum has returned the marble head of Eros to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, reuniting it with a 3rd century sarcophagus.
This particular restitution debate dates back nearly 90 years. In 1934, the UK government agreed for V&A to return the Greek god of love’s head, but the museum decided to just provide a plaster cast, fearing the precedent returning the work would set.
Eric Maclagan, the V&A director at the time, said a return could, “raise the difficulty of possible repercussions, particularly with regard to the Elgin Marbles [at the British Museum].” He did, however, acknowledge the situation was different with the head of Eros. “I think we could justify ourselves by pointing out that this is a question of a single head missing from a large monument, of much more value if replaced than if exhibited by itself”.
The story of how Eros’ head came into the V&A’s possession begins in 1882. Charles Wilson, the British military consul general in Anatolia, discovered an ornate Roman sarcophagus at Sidamaria, in Karaman province, central Turkey.
Wilson reburied the sarcophagus, hoping to secure its eventual return to the UK. All he took at the time was the life-sized head of Eros, which had apparently become detached from its body. He loaned the head to the V&A a year later, in 1883. Wilson’s daughter converted the loan into a gift in 1933.
When first loaning it, Wilson wrote, “I am trying to secure the [whole] sarcophagus for England and should wish the head eventually to go to whoever secures the sarcophagus.” In 1898, with Wilson having been unable to ship the sarcophagus, it was rediscovered and brought to Istanbul.
Since at least the late 20th century, Eros’ head has remained in storage in London.
The new arrangement to return the head has been described as a “cultural partnership”, and is effectively a loan. Initially lasting six years, it’ll likely be periodically renewed, but with Turkey signing the loan arrangement, they are acknowledging the V&A’s ownership.
Now the head is back in Turkey, it is reattached to its body. The Art Newspaper explains, “a reversible adhesive was applied to the neck of the head and gaps along the neck joint were filled with a fixture of marble powder and a reversible resin. The marble head was also carefully cleaned to ensure that its surface matches more closely the rest of the sarcophagus.”
With Eros’ head now back on its body, the sarcophagus is fully on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.