Sicily welcomes the Getty’s cult goddess home

In 1988 the J. Paul Getty Museum bought a larger-than-life-sized 5th c. B.C. Greek sculpture of a cult goddess (at the time referred to as Aphrodite, but later that attribution was found to be inaccurate) for a record sum of $18 million. The statue was so valuable because it was a very rare almost complete acrolithic sculpture, a sculpture where the face, hands and feet were carved out of marble or ivory and the body made out of wood or limestone that would be gilded or dressed with fabric for display. The bodies are usually long gone, so having the whole thing, plus the face, an arm and feet makes this a unique example.

The statue became the centerpiece of the Getty Villa museum in Malibu’s permanent collection. When the Getty bought it, however, they had to turn their necks all the way around like owls to avoid seeing the glaring evidence that it had been recently looted from Morgantina, Sicily, a former Greek colony and an extensive archaeological site that was poorly guarded and a prime target for thieves. Instead they claimed to believe the ludicrously false cover story that the goddess had been secreted away since the 1930s in a mysterious private collection in Switzerland, the Canadian girlfriend of provenances.

Finally, under pressure from the Italian government who had put Getty curator Marion True on trial and were loudly clamoring for the return of illegally exported artifacts, in 2006 the Getty hired a private investigator to trace the statue’s history of ownership, and the investigator found a number of photographs dating to the early ’80s showing the statue in pieces, fresh dirt still encrusted on her face, on a plastic tarp on a floor somewhere. So much for the Swiss collection from the ’30s. The investigators also found evidence linking the “collector” to a Sicilian smuggling ring.

Faced with this damning evidence, in 2007 the Getty board caved and agreed to return the goddess to Italy. (The year after that the LA Times revealed that the Getty had had a chance to see those same pictures a decade earlier, but they chose not to. Can you spell willful blindness, boys and girls? I knew you could.)

On Monday, they made good on the agreement.

The 7-foot tall, 1,300-pound statue of limestone and marble was painstakingly taken off display at the Getty Villa and disassembled in December. Last week, it was locked in shipping crates with an Italian diplomatic seal and loaded aboard an Alitalia flight to Rome, where it arrived on Thursday. From there it traveled with an armed police escort by ship and truck to the small hilltop town of Aidone, Sicily, where it arrived Saturday to waiting crowds.

The Getty also generously donated the custom-designed seismic base they built to support the statue. Since Sicily is as earthquake-prone as Los Angeles, the base will provide an important measure of security for the statue, allowing it to move gently along with the earth during tremors.

The sculpture will be put back together for display in the Aidone Archaeological Museum. A full-scale exhibit is scheduled for May.


17 thoughts on “Sicily welcomes the Getty’s cult goddess home

  1. I’ve been contemplating this all day and fail to understand why the Geddy didn’t just have the investigators eliminated before they got close to the truth. It’s Villainy 101 people!

  2. A classic blunder. The first is never get involved in a land war in Asia. The second, only slightly less well known, is this: never go up against a Sicilian when a Goddess is on the line!

  3. The Princess Bride aside, this brings me back to the age old question – if the statue was previously looted from a rich archaeological site with poor security and not from, say, an Italian museum, why does Italy deserve to get it back?
    If a country isn’t utilizing or protecting its antiquities, can a fair argument truly be made that they need to keep them?
    Coming from an antiquity-less country (America) and having recently spent some time in countries rich with antiquities but poor in conservation (Italy, UK, and Greece) I’ve been gradually coming around to the belief that just because something comes from a certain country doesn’t mean they necessarily deserve to keep it there (especially if they were just planning on keeping it on a tarp on the ground somewhere) when another country desperately wants to house it somewhere inside with some nice temperature control and fancy things like custom-designed seismic bases.
    I know this is a rather one-sided way of approaching the issue and hugely capitalist, but I can’t shake the feeling that the “fairness” and legality of these issues has overtaken common sense.

  4. Well, there are laws involved. If my lock is flimsy, does that mean that it’s not stealing when someone kicks down the door and helps themselves to my tv, computer and jewelry? If they get caught, do they get to keep my stuff because my security was inadequate and finders keepers? When someone then buys my tv, computer and jewelry off the back of a truck, no questions asked, are they no longer receiving stolen goods just because I didn’t get a decent deadbolt?

    According to the legal system, the answer to those questions is no. Even according to hugely capitalist standards it’s still a big no. Taking things that do not belong to you is theft, reselling them is fencing stolen goods, and buying them is possessing stolen goods, whether the goods were in a bank vault or in your living room in plain view of a big, easily breakable window.

    In the case of museums, there’s a whole other stricture beyond just the issue of theft because in theory at least museums have missions to promote and protect artifacts that enhance our knowledge and understanding of the past. A museum that knowingly scoops up anything they like no matter what the circumstances of its removal, no matter how much archaeological information was destroyed in the process, no matter how much damage was done to the site and other ancient objects deemed less salable, is behaving in an ethically reprehensible manner, imo.

  5. How does a culture “dig up and use” it’s archeological history all at once? Italy is a big place. If you turn the dirt anyplace you are digging up Treasures of Antiquity.
    Maybe it should be okay to keep cultural history in culture. if my great great great great great great grandmother’s birthing costume were in some fatkat’s museum in Italy because they bought it from a thief, I would be so angry.

  6. Ehhhh, Malcolm Bell himself said that there was no real reason to believe it actually came from Morgantina. Geological analysis proved it was Sicilian limestone, but the actual site it came from was still unknown. That said, the Getty’s round-about process of proving it wasn’t looted was weak at best.

    Renzo Canavesi allegedly tried to come forward with evidence that it was looted, but Marion True refused to look into it for some reason. She probably could have saved herself all the trouble if she had just agreed to hear from him and the Getty investigated sooner.

    Still, I don’t think it was ever proven to have actually come from Aidone, was it? But I’m glad Italy got it back.

  7. It’s always an uphill battle trying to prove the exact site of a looting. The Giacomo Medici Polaroids were a dramatic fluke, and even with that rare level of proof, objects from the Medici scrapbooks are still showing up regularly on the high end auction markets, no questions asked.

    That’s how the Getty and so many other museums got away with their craned necks for so long, by insisting on a near-impossible evidentiary burden instead of accepting their own responsibilities and doing real due diligence.

    I don’t think it’s particularly mysterious why True and the Getty deliberately looked away from proof that they had purchased $18 million worth of stolen goods. It was standard practice to loudly claim ludicrous cover tales of never-published mysterious Swiss collections were Scout’s honor purest truth.

  8. @ Sarah:

    I mostly agree with your point of view, since it logically makes sense.

    However, my dilemma with the whole thing is this:

    What if some of the US’s antiquities were owned by other other countries? Like…say…our original Constitution was housed in Greece. Or maybe General Patton’s uniform was in Tunisia.

    Those things are American heritage. I would be kinda upset about it.

  9. ETA: Doh! I should read your response to Sarah, livius. Mmy fault. When you put it like that, you’re absolutely correct. Never thought about it that way. Thank you.

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