The so-called Elgin marbles and other harvests gravitated into the collections of state-run institutions—“universal museums,” as they were conceived during the Enlightenment, whose goal was to exhibit the range of human culture under one roof. Filled with artworks appropriated in the heyday of colonialism, the Louvre and the British Museum—home of Elgin’s Parthenon sculptures since 1816—said they were obeying an imperative to save ancient artifacts from the vagaries of human affairs and preserve their beauty for posterity. (Their intellectual descendants, such as New York’s Met, would echo that rationale.) To a large degree, they succeeded.
Attitudes began changing after World War I, when plundered patrimony began to be seen less as a right of victors than as a scourge of vandals. Efforts to crack down on such trafficking culminated in a 1970 accord under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). The agreement recognized a country’s right to protect and control artifacts within its borders and called on nations to block the illicit trade in antiquities through import and export restrictions.
Museum and cultural officials worldwide hailed the agreement, but some of the nations with the hottest markets were among the slowest to ratify it. The United States did so in 1983; Switzerland, a notorious hub of the trade, followed suit in 2003. Meanwhile, dealers kept offering unprovenanced artifacts, and many curators and collectors kept buying. None shopped harder than the Getty.
Opened in 1954 by the oil baron J. Paul Getty, the museum was initially a boutique collection of 18th-century French furniture, tapestries, old master paintings and classical artifacts. Then in 1976, Getty died and left the institution the bulk of his $700 million fortune. Soon it became a giant, with ambitions to compete with older museums. It focused first on building its antiquities collection.
The museum immediately paid nearly $4 million for a sublime Greek bronze statue believed to be the last surviving work of Lysippos, master sculptor for Alexander the Great. (The work is no longer attributed to him.) It acquired $16 million worth of antiquities from the New York diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman. It spent $9.5 million for a rare kouros, or ancient statue of a Greek youth, that many experts now believe is fake. This buying spree climaxed in 1988, when Getty officials announced they had acquired a towering statue of a Greek goddess from the fifth century B.C.
An unknown sculptor had caught the female figure in midstride, with her right arm extended and her gown rippling in the wind, as if she were walking through a storm. The statue’s size and detail suggested the goddess had been the object of cult worship in an ancient temple. Its rare combination of materials—head and extremities of fine marble, body of limestone—distinguished it as an acrolithic statue, a kind of amalgam, or artistic scarecrow, created where marble was scarce. The wet-drapery style of its dress placed its creation during the height of Greek classicism, shortly after Phidias chiseled the Parthenon statuary that would so enthrall the Earl of Elgin.
The statue bore few clues to the figure’s identity. Its head was a bit small. Something had been torn from its right hand, which ended at broken knuckles. But based on its drapery and voluptuous figure, Marion True, who had become the Getty’s antiquities curator in 1986, concluded that the figure was likely Aphrodite. In her pre-purchase curator’s report to the museum board, True made clear that acquiring the statue would be a coup, even with its then-record $18 million price tag. “The proposed statue of Aphrodite would not only become the single greatest piece of ancient art in our collection,” she wrote, “it would be the greatest piece of Classical sculpture in this country and any country outside of Greece and Great Britain.”
Yet the statue had appeared out of nowhere, unknown to leading antiquities experts. The London dealer who offered it to the Getty provided no documentation of its provenance and would say only that its prior owner had been a collector in a Swiss town just north of Italy. The museum’s Rome attorney told the Italian Ministry of Culture “an important foreign institution” was considering buying the statue and asked if it had any information on the piece; the answer was no. Among the outside experts consulted by True, two raised questions about the statue’s legitimacy. One of them, Iris Love, an American archaeologist and friend of True’s, said she told True: “I beg you, don’t buy it. You will only have troubles and problems.” [In a written statement to Smithsonian, True said Love was shown photographs of the statue but “had nothing to say herself about the possible provenance or importance of the object” and “offered no counsel about purchase.”]
The director of the Getty’s Conservation Institute, Luis Monreal, inspected the statue before the purchase was completed. He noted recent breaks in the torso—looters commonly break artifacts into pieces for easier transport—and fresh dirt in the folds of the dress. Concluding that it was a “hot potato,” he pleaded with John Walsh, the museum’s director, and Harold Williams, CEO of the Getty Trust, to reject it.
They didn’t. Critics excoriated the Getty for buying the “orphan,” as art insiders call antiquities offered for sale without provenance. Other museums had acquired smaller orphans, discreetly inserting them into their collections, but the magnitude of this acquisition riled foreign officials and archaeologists alike; they argued that the goddess had almost certainly been looted. Italian officials claimed she had been taken from an ancient site in the Sicilian town of Morgantina, once a Greek colony. Journalists descended on a sleepy excavation site there and reported that it was a favorite target of looters. The local archaeological superintendent said the Getty attorney’s request for information on the statue had never been forwarded to her. An American legal publication, the National Law Journal, ran a photograph of the artwork and a story with the headline “Was This Statue Stolen?”