Monday 6 December 2010

"The Old Practices of Ignoring Caution Signs While Shopping for Treasures Became Increasingly Unacceptable...."

A limestone statue with a marble head, once described as "the greatest piece of classical sculpture in any country outside of Greece and Great Britain," and the most costly antiquity the J. Paul Getty Trust ever acquired, is about to leave the museum to return to Sicily.* The item is the last of the forty artefacts which the Getty Museum will be returning to Italy as a result of that country's decade-old campaign to retrieve antiquities it says were illegally taken out of the country before being taken to California. The object is now being packed and will be flown in January to Sicily, where it is believed to have been illegally dug from the ground in the late 1970s. In late March, the statue will be unveiled in the archaeological museum at Aidone.

The statue was purchased for $18 million ($33.3 million today). When the Getty announced its arrival in July 1988, it was a cause for celebration. "It's unique in the world," said Marion True, then the museum's chief curator of antiquities. [...] But the furor over the goddess' legality began within days of its unveiling, when Italian authorities opened an investigation into rumors that it was looted in the late 1970s from Morgantina, a poorly protected archaeological site in eastern Sicily.

The Getty initially parried criticism by saying it had acted in good faith; before buying the statue from a British dealer, museum officials said, they had checked with government authorities to make sure the goddess, previously unknown to archeologists and antiquities experts, was not being sought as stolen goods.

But times changed in the museum world. Under pressure from Italy, Greece, Egypt and other countries with buried ancient art — and from archaeologists who believe ancient finds are best seen and studied where they originally stood — the old practices of ignoring caution signs while shopping for treasures became increasingly unacceptable.

In 2006, the Getty adopted strict new rules for acquiring antiquities. In August 2007, it agreed to return the 40 looted artworks to Italy. At first, the museum had tried to hold onto "Cult Statue of a Goddess," proposing joint ownership with Italy while further investigation went forward to determine whether she in fact had been dug from Morgantina. The Italians refused.

The Getty eventually capitulated after Italy's culture minister threatened a national embargo on art loans to the Getty and an end to cooperation on Getty research and conservation projects.

Source: Mike Boehm, 'Getty Villa prepares to say farewell to its goddess'
Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2010

* While the cult statue was originally marketed as representing Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, there are other possibilities. The matronly garb, including a cloak broken off at the shoulder that originally may have extended over her head like a bridal veil, may mean it represents Zeus' wife, Hera, the goddess of marriage.

Vignette: Limestone and marble sculpture from Morgantina (Getty).

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