From the look on Renzo Canavesi’s face, our first encounter was not going to end well. The strapping, barrel-chested octogenarian stared down at me from the second-floor landing of his home in the foothills of the Swiss Alps while a dog barked wildly from behind an iron gate. I had traveled more than 6,000 miles to ask Canavesi about one of the world’s most contested pieces of ancient art: a 2,400-year-old statue of a woman believed to be Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
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The statue, which stands seven-and-a-half-feet tall and weighs more than half a ton, had reigned since 1988 as the centerpiece of the Greek and Roman antiquities collection at the J. Paul Getty Museum near Malibu, California, the world’s richest art institution. Italian officials insisted it had been looted from central Sicily, and they wanted it back. Canavesi had been identified as the statue’s previous owner. When I knocked on his door that day five years ago, I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and he was living quietly in the town of Sagno, just north of the border with Italy.
“It’s too delicate of an issue,” he called down to me. “I don’t want to say anything to anyone.”
When I persisted, his face darkened and he threatened to call the police. “Mind your own business....I’m not saying another word,” he said, and slammed the door behind him. But by then, the goddess had become everybody’s business—the most visible symbol of an escalating contest of wills between elite American art museums and Old World cultural officials.
For decades, U.S. museums, and private collectors who donated objects to them, had been purchasing antiquities at auction or from dealers. With objects of unclear provenance, or ownership history, an attitude of don’t tell, don’t ask prevailed: sellers offered scant, dubious or even false information. Museums and other buyers commonly accepted that information at face value, more concerned that the objects were authentic than how they came to market. Foreign cultural officials occasionally pressed claims that various vases, sculptures and frescoes in U.S. museum showcases had been looted—stripped from ancient ruins and taken out of archaeological context—and smuggled out of their countries, in violation of both foreign patrimony laws and an international accord that sought to end illicit trafficking in cultural property. Museums resisted those claims, demanding evidence that the contested artifacts had indeed been spirited away.
The evidence, when it was produced, brought about an unprecedented wave of repatriations—not only by the Getty, but also by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Princeton University Art Museum, as well as from antiquities dealers and collectors.
Within the past five years, museums have returned to the Italian and Greek governments more than 100 artifacts worth nearly $1 billion. The Met gave back 21 pieces, including its celebrated Euphronios krater, a Greek vessel dating to about 515 B.C., which the museum had acquired in 1972 for a then-record $1 million. The Boston MFA returned 13 objects, including a statue of Sabina, wife of the second-century A.D. Roman emperor Hadrian. In no case did a museum acknowledge wrongdoing on its part, and, in a historic shift, the Italian government agreed to make long-term loans of other antiquities to take the place of those that had been repatriated.
The Getty gave back more objects than any other museum—47, nearly a dozen of them masterpieces—and the last piece to go was its iconic goddess. The story of the statue stands as a case study of how longstanding practices in the market for Greek and Roman antiquities were overtaken by changes in attitude, the law and law enforcement.
Throughout a modern odyssey covering more than 30 years, the Getty’s goddess had cast a spell over those who possessed her, those who desired her and those who simply tried to understand her. During six years of reporting and writing about the Getty with Times reporter Jason Felch, first for the newspaper and then a book, we buttonholed investigators, lawyers, cultural officials, museum administrators, curators, tomb raiders and one purported smuggler with suspected Mafia ties. And still I couldn’t let go. So this past May, Jason and I found ourselves on an airplane, heading to Italy once again, to see the goddess in her new home.
The plundering of artifacts goes back millennia. An Egyptian papyrus from 1100 B.C. describes the prosecution of several men caught raiding a pharaoh’s tomb. The Romans looted the Greeks; the Visigoths pillaged Rome; the Spanish sacked the Americas. Napoleon’s army stripped Egypt of mummies and artifacts, followed by professional treasure hunters like the Great Belzoni, who took to the pyramids with battering rams. England’s aristocracy stocked its salons with artifacts lifted from archaeological sites during the “grand tours” that were once de rigueur for scions of wealth. Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, loaded up on so many marble sculptures from the Parthenon that he scandalized members of Parliament and drew poison from Lord Byron’s pen.