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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)

The Goddess Goes Home

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

In 1996, Canavesi had sent photocopies of two photographs to Getty officials and offered to provide fragments from the statue and discuss its provenance. True declined to talk to him, later saying she had been suspicious of his motives. Now, ten years later, the 20 photographs Canavesi showed to the investigators all but screamed that the statue had been looted. After seeing that evidence, the Getty board concluded it was no Canavesi family heirloom. In talks with the Italian Culture Ministry, the museum first sought joint title to the statue, then in November 2006 signaled that it might be willing to give it up.

By then, American museum officials, shaken by news photographs of Marion True trying to shield her face as she walked through the paparazzi outside a Rome courthouse, were making their own arrangements to return artifacts investigators had identified from Giacomo Medici’s Polaroids.

The Met made its repatriation deal with Italy in February 2006, the Boston MFA eight months later. The Princeton museum followed in October 2007 with an agreement to transfer title to eight antiquities. In November 2008, the Cleveland Museum committed to give back 13 objects. Just this past September, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts agreed to return a 2,500-year-old vase.

The Getty completed its agreement in August 2007. Previously it had returned four items, including the funerary wreath, to Greece and three to Italy. Now it agreed to return 40 more objects to Italy, the majority of which had been depicted in the Polaroids, plus the goddess. Having played hardball, the Italians relented. They allowed the Getty to keep the statue on display until December 2010.

By the time the statue left for Italy this past March, American museums and the Italian government had come to terms. Even as the museums returned contested objects, Italian officials relaxed their country’s long-standing opposition to the long-term loan of antiquities. The Getty and other museums pledged to acquire only artifacts with documented prov­enance before 1970, the year of the Unesco accord, or legally exported afterward.

Marion True resigned from the Getty in 2005, and her case was dismissed in October 2010, the statute of limitations having expired. Though she has largely melted into private life, she remains a subject of debate in the art world: scapegoat or participant? Tragic or duplicitous?

From Rome, the statue was taken to its new home, the Sicilian town of Aidone, near Morgantina. It seemed as if all 5,000 townspeople turned out to welcome it. A band played as the crates bearing the goddess’s parts were wheeled over the cobblestone streets to the town museum.

At a preview of the reassembled statue in May, a local archaeologist named Flavia Zisa wondered whether the goddess’s “new mythology”—the whodunit of how she came to rest at the Getty—had overshadowed its “old mythology,” the story of her origins and purpose.

“The ‘new mythology’ has distracted the people,” said Zisa. She said she first saw the statue in 1995, as a 32-year-old intern at the Getty Museum (where she became a protégée and friend of Marion True’s). “But no one thought of the ‘old mythology.’ We don’t even know the [goddess’s] name. We don’t even know the objects that were found next to the sculpture. We don’t know anything.” Indeed, the Aidone museum identifies the sculpture without reference to Aphrodite or Venus. Its plaque reads: “The statue of a female deity from Morgantina, excavated clandestinely and exported illegally, was repatriated in 2011 by the J. Paul Getty Museum of Malibu.”

When the statue was officially unveiled the next day, citizens, politicians and others descended on the museum. “There is a deep sense of patriotism in every one of us,” said Iana Valenti, who works as an English interpreter. “The return of this statue is very important. It is like a piece of our culture, a piece of our country.” A Getty official read a statement by David Bomford, the museum’s acting director, saying the decision to return the statue had been “fraught with much debate” but “was, without a doubt, the right decision.”

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