Sunday 5 December 2010

Aidona Treasure Displayed at Last Near Where it was Found

Last week hundreds of residents from the tiny hilltop town of Aidone in eastern Sicily visited the town’s archaeology museum to celebrate the return of an ancient treasure that had been illegally whisked away from them thirty years ago. The cache of 16 Hellenistic silver-gilt objects (originally used for religious purposes and for banquets and dating from the third century B.C. ) had been illegally excavated in Morgantina, an ancient Greek settlement whose ruins lie next to Aidone. The objects, now known as the Morgantina silver, had been acquired on the antiquities market by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in two installments, in 1981 and 1982, for a total of $2.74 million from dealer Robert Hecht. It has taken all that time for archaeologists, magistrates and eventually the Italian government to convince the museum that the pieces should be returned.

This was achieved in a 2006 accord between Italy and the museum for the return of several objects that Italians had demonstrated had been looted from Italian soil. This recognises that the Met shares joint custody of the silver, which will travel between New York and Aidone every four years for exhibit, it will temporarily return to New York in 2014. When the silver came to Italy in February, the Met received a recently excavated 20-piece Roman dining set from the Pompeii region.

After being exhibited in other Italian towns and the Shanghai World Expo this year after it arrived back in the country in February, the hoard has now arrived in Sicily, and installed in the local museum with other finds found in the house where it seems the silver was probably buried in 211 B.C. when Morgantina fell to the Romans.

For decades Dr. Malcolm Bell III, professor emeritus of art history and archaeology at the University of Virginia and the director of excavations at Morgantina was a leading crusader for the return of the treasure, and in Aidone, where his excavations brought seasonal work for many residents, he is very much a hero.

“This is a very happy moment and deeply satisfying,” he said in an interview. [...] “The silver can perhaps shed light on the brutal, dramatic circumstances of the final years of the Second Punic War and, seen within the framework of the house, we get a sense of the art and the material culture of Hellenistic Sicily,”[...] “The [objects] have truly been recontextualized, and that is really important.” [...] The Aidone museum is small, without space for temporary exhibitions or multimedia stations, and roads to the town badly need repairs, said Enrico Caruso, who in September was appointed director of the new Archaeological Park of Morgantina. But all of its treasures belong in Aidone, he said, adding, “Here they are not orphans.”
Local residents are pleased that at last those who bought the items taken from them have been persuaded to return them.
“They’re beautiful works of art, they tempted a lot of people, but it’s right that they’ve come back to their proper home,” said one visitor, Alfredo Scivoli, who opened a bed-and-breakfast here in April, in anticipation of the tourists that local officials hope will be drawn here by the silver.
The New York Times article notes that for Aidone,"the silver’s return means much more than righting a wrong" and celebrating the power of place of the region where the items were found. The exhibition of the Morgantina treasure near the place it was found presents new hope for the future and is a concrete example that the damage done by looting and the illicit trade is not only archaeological, but economic. Aidone is an economically depressed town that offers few employment opportunities and has seen droves of younger people seek their fortunes elsewhere and the archaeological heritage of the region is an important way of boosting revenues through cultural tourism, a process which the looting of sites and the uncontrolled illegal export of antiquities of all types prevents.
Last year the Aidone Archaeological Museum became the permanent home to two archaic acroliths (statues usually made with wooden trunks but stone heads and extremities) that had also been looted from Morgantina. They had once been owned by Maurice Tempelsman, a New York businessman. [...] Another boost to the collection will come next year when the J. Paul Getty Museum [...] returns a cult statue of a goddess that it bought in 1988 for $18 million. It too was probably looted from Morgantina. [...] In return Sicily will loan several works to the Getty. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Mayor Filippo Gangi of Aidone. The “extraordinary triptych” of artworks, he said, could “trigger an unprecedented economic development” in Aidone, exploiting too the town’s proximity to the Roman Villa del Casale, which boasts more than 4,200 square yards of late Roman mosaics and is already one of the most visited sites in Sicily.

Source: Elisabetta Povoledo, 'A Trove of Ancient Silver Said to Be Stolen Returns to Its Home in Sicily' New York Times December 5, 2010.


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