Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, Rome, Italy
Sicily, a land famous for its history and traditions, continues to suffer from the looting of its archaeological heritage. The plunder is promoted by unscrupulous dealers interested only in their own economic advancement and the artefacts removed as so often happens are shipped abroad to the wealthy demand countries. One such case came to light in 1988 when the Superintendency for Cultural Property (Fine Arts) informed the Section of Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage that a fourth-century bc Greek statue of Aphrodite, 230 cm high and executed in limestone, had been removed illegally from the archaeological area of Morgantina, close to the modern town of Enna. Enquiries carried out with the assistance of Interpol uncovered the route followed by the statue, which had eventually come to rest in the J. Paul Getty Museum after passing through the hands of a British citizen who claimed to have bought it from a family based in Lugano, Switzerland.
The case seemed set for a positive resolution in October 1988 when the Getty forwarded to the Italian Ministry of Cultural Property a letter written by Thomas Hoving (editor of Connoisseur magazine) in which he declared that the statue had been obtained through illicit excavation at Morgantina, and marketed by an Italian citizen who had offered the piece to several dealers before finally selling it.
During a visit to the Getty, the Superintendent Archaeologist of Rome, Professor Adriano La Regina, examined the statue, and on the basis of its style and material proposed a Morgantina provenance. Dr Marion True, Curator of the Department of Antiquities at the Getty, then agreed that a joint examination of the object should proceed in cooperation with Italian archaeologists so as to verify its provenance. The committee, convened by the Ministry of Cultural Property, and chaired by Professor Giovanni Guzzo, Superintendent Archaeologist of Pompei, confirmed after intensive study in March 2000 that the statue was made of Sicilian limestone.
Unfortunately, the committees findings did not result as expected in the return of the statue to Sicily. It is still exhibited at the Getty. The return of the statue would permit the Museum to demonstrate its sensitivity to Italian concerns about lost cultural heritage and also to confirm its adherence to the principles laid down in the ICOM Code of Ethics.
The Getty replies:
Culture Without Context contacted the J. Paul Getty Museum about the statue of Aphrodite, and its Director Deborah Gribbon replied as follows:
In the fall of 1987, when the Getty Museum was considering the acquisition of the large cult statue thought to represent Aphrodite, we informed the Italian Ministero per I Beni Culturali, as well as the Ministries of Culture of Greece and Turkey, of our intention and requested any information about the history of the object or possible claims against it. The response that the Museum received in November from the Ministero per I Beni Culturali, signed by Professor Francesco Sisinni, Director General of the Ministero, stated that [obviously in translation]: . . . from the search conducted at the competent offices of this Administration, no information as to the origin and authenticity of the object has been found.
The allegation that the statue came from Morgantina was made some months later. Early in 1988, Thomas Hoving telephoned the Museum to say that he understood we were considering purchasing a statue of Nike that was found in illicit excavations at Morgantina. Mr Hoving offered no evidence to support this statement of provenance, but we acted immediately to investigate the matter. The Museums Curator of Antiquities, Marion True, contacted Professor Malcolm Bell, on the faculty of the University of Virginia and Field Director of Morgantina Excavations. Dr True explained the situation and dispatched by courier high-quality photographs and a complete description of the statue, asking for Dr Bells opinion. After receiving the photos, Dr Bell wrote Dr True saying that
in recent years important works of art have been found at the site, produced both by legitimate and illegitimate excavation. I would therefore not rule out a possible provenance for the piece at Morgantina. At the same time I can say that, at the time of writing, I know of no reason to argue that it was found at Morgantina.
Later, in conversation with Dr True, Dr Bell suggested two reasons why he felt the Aphrodite did not come from Morgantina. No sculpture carved in the acrolithic technique (the unusual combination of limestone and marble used for the piece in question) had ever been found at the site in fact, no limestone sculpture had ever been found at Morgantina at all. And as the style of the statue suggested a date around 400 bc when the city of Morgantina was suffering a serious economic decline, it was highly unlikely that such a large and expensive sculpture would have been commissioned for a local sanctuary.
Provided with that information, the Museum proceeded with the acquisition in July, 1988. The acquisition was announced immediately. The Aphrodite went on public display within seven months (it took some time to design and build a mount that would be seismically safe) and the Museum published the sculpture in 1989, less than a year after it had been acquired.
After the announcement of the purchase, Mr Hoving published an article in Connoisseur that purported to detail the recent history of the statue. Once again, he presented no evidence to substantiate his story, but the Museum took the precaution of sending the text to the Italian Ministry to ensure that the officials in charge would be aware of Mr Hovings story.
In the fall of 1988, Professor Adriano La Regina was sent by the Italian government to examine the statue. He could not, and did not, comment on the alleged provenance of Morgantina, as he claims no expertise in the artefacts from that site or, indeed, from that region (he is and has been for many years the Soprintendente of the Fori Imperiali in Rome). He came to the Museum to verify the authenticity of the sculpture, as several statements in the Italian press had suggested that the piece was an elaborate forgery. The Museum extended every courtesy to Professor La Regina, giving him free access to the statue. He concluded that it was genuine.
Over the next years, Dr True and Jerry Podany, the Gettys Conservator of Antiquities, spoke with representatives of the Ministry about the possibility of studying the limestone from which the body was carved. Ultimately, the Museum voluntarily provided stone samples that could be analyzed by geologists in both Los Angeles and Palermo. This analysis was not done for the purpose of determining the find spot of the sculpture; such an analysis was not, and is not today, technically possible. It is acknowledged by American and Italian scientists that the study and identification of limestone quarries is still in its infancy most ancient quarries have not been located or sampled and no large data bases for the accurate determination of provenance yet exist for various types of limestone. In addition, but equally important, even if the quarry could be identified, it would not be a certain indicator of the provenance of the sculpture. Marble analysis had already determined that the head and preserved arm, hands, and foot of the statue are all made of Greek marble from the island of Paros, but the statues provenance was manifestly not Paros.
Early in 2000, the Italian scientific committee prepared a report that concluded the limestone was Sicilian. The Gettys analysis reached the same conclusion. While we promptly sent a copy of our conclusions to the Italian officials, the Italian scientific committees report was never shared with the Getty. Instead, it was released directly to the press.
The Getty Museum has never represented anything other than the fact that the statue probably came from the area of Magna Graecia (South Italy and Sicily). The determination of the limestone as Sicilian by itself does not establish a Morgantina provenance for the piece.Fourth-century bc Greek statue of Aphrodite.
First posted June 2003; Page design updated September 2006