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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The following April, Ferri secured an indictment of True as a co-conspirator with Medici and another middleman. She was ordered to stand trial in Rome. Ferri’s evidence list against True included Getty objects depicted in the Polaroids, plus one that was not: the Venus of Morgantina. He had added it at the last minute, he said, hoping to “make a bang.”

Marion True was the first curator in the United States to be accused by a foreign government of trafficking in illicit art. [In her written statement to Smithsonian, she described her indictment and trial as a “political travesty” and said, “I, not the institution, its director nor its president, was used by the Italian state as a highly visible target to create fear among American museums.”]

Jason Felch and I learned from confidential Getty documents and dozens of interviews that while True was building her reputation as a reformer, she maintained curatorial ties to suppliers of unprovenanced, and likely illicit, objects. In 1992, she agreed to meet two men at a Zurich bank to inspect a gold Greek funerary wreath from the fourth century B.C. Rattled by the encounter, True turned down the wreath, writing to the dealer who had referred her to the two sellers that “it is something that is too dangerous for us to be involved with.” [True, in her statement, wrote that she described the situation that way “not because the wreath was questionable but because it was impossible for the museum to deal with completely unreliable and seemingly capricious people.”] Four months later, the dealer offered it himself, at a price reduced from $1.6 million to $1.2 million. True recommended it and the museum bought it. The Getty would return the wreath to Greece in 2007.

Jason and I also documented that True’s superiors, who approved her purchases, knew the Getty might be buying illicit objects. Handwritten notes by John Walsh memorialized a 1987 conversation in which he and Harold Williams debated whether the museum should buy antiquities from dealers who were “liars.” At one point, Walsh’s notes quote Williams, a former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, as saying: “Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?” Williams told us he was speaking hypothetically.

Even in 2006, some 18 years after the Getty purchased its goddess, the statue’s origins and entry into the market remained obscure. But that year a local art collector in Sicily told Jason that tomb raiders had offered him the goddess’s head, one of three found around Morgantina in 1979. According to previous Italian newspaper reports, the torso had been taken to a high place, pushed onto a blunt object and broken into three roughly equal pieces. The pieces were then loaded into a Fiat truck and covered with a mountain of loose carrots to be smuggled out of the country.

While Jason was reporting in Sicily, I went to Switzerland to interview Renzo Canavesi, who used to run a tobacco shop and cambia, or money-changing house, near Chiasso, just north of the Italian border. For decades the border region had been known for money-laundering and smuggling, mostly in cigarettes but also drugs, guns, diamonds, passports, credit cards—and art. It was there in March 1986 that the goddess statue first surfaced in the market, when Canavesi sold it for $400,000 to the London dealer who would offer it to the Getty.

The transaction had generated a receipt, a hand-printed note on Canavesi’s cambia stationery—the statue’s only shred of provenance. “I am the sole owner of this statue,” it read, “which has belonged to my family since 1939.” After the London dealer turned the receipt over to authorities in 1992, an Italian art squad investigator said he thought Canavesi’s statement was dubious: 1939 was the year Italy passed its patrimony law, making all artifacts discovered from then on property of the state. After a second lengthy investigation in Italy, Canavesi was convicted in absentia in 2001 of trafficking in looted art. But the conviction was overturned because the statute of limitations had expired.

Canavesi twice declined to talk to me, so I asked some of his relatives if they had ever noticed a giant Greek statue around the family home. A niece who had taken over Canavesi’s tobacco shop replied: “If there had been an expensive statue in my family, I wouldn’t be working here now, I’d be home with my children.” Canavesi’s younger brother, Ivo, who ran a women’s handbag business from his home down the mountain from Sagno, said he knew nothing about such a statue. “Who knows?” he said with a chuckle. “Maybe it was in the cellar, and no one spoke about it.”

By then, Jason and I were crossing paths with a law firm the Getty had hired to probe its antiquities acquisitions. Private investigators working for the firm managed to secure a meeting with Canavesi. He told them his father had bought the statue while working in a Paris watch factory, then carted it back in pieces to Switzerland, where they wound up in a basement under Canavesi’s shop. Then he showed the investigators something he had apparently shared with no previous inquisitor.

He pulled out 20 photographs of the goddess in a state of disassembly: the marble feet covered in dirt, one of them configured from pieces, on top of a wooden pallet. The limestone torso lay on a warehouse floor. A close-up showed a dirt-encrusted face. Most telling was a picture of some 30 pieces of the statue, scattered over sand and the edges of a plastic sheet.


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