The Goddess Goes Home

Following years of haggling over its provenance, a celebrated statue once identified as Aphrodite, has returned to Italy

This past March, the J. Paul Getty Museum repatriated the 2,400-year-old statue—the most recent of more than 40 objects at the museum that Italy said had been illegally removed. (Francesco Lastrucci)
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Around the same time, a Sicilian judge accused the Getty of harboring two other looted objects on loan. The museum removed them from public view and returned them to their owners—and then put its prize statue on permanent display in early 1989. (The Getty’s purchase did not violate Unesco sanctions because Italy had not yet petitioned the State Department for cultural import restrictions, as a federal implementing law required.)

Meanwhile, the museum was growing into a cultural behemoth. The Getty Trust’s endowment, aided by the 1984 sale of Getty Oil, approached $5 billion. To its Roman villa-style museum near Malibu it added, in 1997, the Getty Center, a vast modernist complex on a hill overlooking Los Angeles’ hip Westside.

Marion True became an outspoken proponent for reform in the antiquities market, openly criticizing what she called her U.S. museum colleagues’ “distorted, patronizing and self-serving” justifications for buying suspect artifacts. She helped Cyprus officials recover four sixth-century Byzantine mosaics stolen from a church. She began to return Getty objects known to have been looted, including hundreds of pieces from the museum’s study collection—pieces of scholarly, if not aesthetic, value. By November 1995, she had pushed through a new policy committing the Getty to acquiring antiquities only from documented collections, essentially pulling the museum out of the black market. The policy was the first of its kind at a major collecting institution.

And yet True had something of a shock when she traveled to Rome in 1999 to return three looted Getty artifacts to the Italian government. She was signing the paperwork in a ceremony at Villa Giulia, the museum for Etruscan antiquities, when an Italian prosecutor named Paolo Ferri approached.

This is a very nice gesture, Ferri told the startled curator, but the Getty must do more. “Maybe next time,” he said, “you’ll bring back the Venus of Morgantina,” using the Roman name for Aphrodite.

“Maybe next time,” True replied, “you’ll have evidence it came from there.”

Much to Ferri’s frustration, the Italians had little evidence. In 1989, officials had charged several Sicilians with looting and smuggling the statue but abandoned the case because it was too weak. In 1994, Italian investigators had filed a formal legal request for a chip of limestone from the torso for analysis. When the Getty complied nearly a year later, the tests matched the limestone to a geological formation 50 miles south of Morgantina. But that alone, the museum said, “does not establish a Morgantina provenance for the piece.”

In recent years, Italy’s national art squad had shifted its focus from the bottom of the antiquities trade—the small-time diggers and moonlighting farmers—to its middlemen and their wealthy clients. In a 1995 raid on a middleman’s Geneva warehouse, they found something they’d never seen before: thousands of Polaroid photographs showing freshly excavated artifacts—broken, dirty, propped up on newspapers, lying in a car trunk. For the first time, they had grim “before” photos to contrast with glamour shots in art catalogs.

The investigators spent years painstakingly matching the Polaroids to objects on museum shelves—in Japan, Germany, Denmark and the United States. They traced them to the Met, the Boston MFA, the Cleveland Museum and elsewhere. The greatest number, nearly 40, were at the Getty, with the most recent having been acquired during True’s tenure.

In December 2004, based on the Polaroids and other evidence, Ferri won a conviction of the middleman, Giacomo Medici, for trafficking in illicit archaeological objects. It was the largest such conviction in Italian history, and it resulted in a ten-year prison sentence and $13.5 million fine. The sentence was later reduced to eight years, and the conviction is still under appeal.


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