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.