The J. Paul Getty Museum is to return three objects it has determined to have been stolen to the Republic of Italy. An illegally excavated fifth-century BC Greek terracotta drinking cup, a second-century Roman torso stolen from a private collection, and a Roman head taken from the store-room of a scholarly excavation are to be sent back. Marion True, curator of antiquities, said “Our antiquities collecting policy calls for our prompt return of objects to their country of origin, should information come to light that convinces us that this is the appropriate action to take.”
The Getty has prided itself on the pursuance of this policy of collaboration with source countries because it sees that, ultimately, it is in no one’s—the host country’s, the market’s or the museum’s—interest to handle objects with dubious provenance. Deborah Gribbon, deputy director of the museum said, “In 1995 we established a formal policy of not acquiring material that did not have a provenance. If it seems to us, upon careful consideration and consultation with other scholars, that an object should be returned to its country of origin, we feel we should do that without having to be forced to that position.”
In this case the Getty’s decision was not prompted by legal action in Italy which has often waged long, complicated and often fruitless battle to retrieve works of art and ancient artifacts stolen from archaeological sites and museums and sold on the open market. Ms True said the Getty had made its decision on its own and reckoned that their action might have repercussions for other museums and collectors. “There is a great fear among many museums; they are already getting defensive, but we have drawn a clear ethical line: once we have demonstrated that a documented piece was stolen, it has to be returned.”
The museum’s decision to return the three works is part of the Getty’s determination to claim the high moral ground by positioning itself as a model of ethical behaviour among academic institutions in the US in the notoriously shady world of antiquities dealing. The museum, enormously wealthy and high-profile, is an obvious target and has often been accused of harbouring items with morally dubious backgrounds, but has never been found guilty of knowingly acquiring stolen or illegally exported property. Precisely because of high public awareness, the museum’s response to charges of impropriety has been to make all the facts public.
Italian officials are said to be encouraged by the Getty’s decision. “There is greater openness”, said General Roberto Conforti, who heads the Carabinieri force on art theft. “We have had a lot of dialogue about this issue and it is beginning to pay off.”
Ironically, one of the objects to be returned, a second-century Roman copy of the head of Diadoumenos by Polykleitos, was the subject of some finger-wagging shortly after the mu-seum announced its policy of returning stolen objects. The head was added to the museum’s collection in 1996 through a combination gift and purchase of the Fleischman collection. Soon afterwards, in Venosa, a German scholar noticed a reference to the head and brought it to Ms True’s attention. Ms True made inquiries with the Italian cultural ministers and it came to light that the head had indeed been stolen from the excavation’s store-room. Ms True laments the loss of the head, which was to have been prominently displayed in the Getty Malibu Villa on its reopening as an antiquities museum in 2002.
The other two objects being returned are a terracotta kylix of 480BC, which has been in the collection since 1983, and a torso of the god Mithra of the second century AD, in the museum’s collection since 1982. The kylix was made by the potter Euphronious and painted with scenes of the Trojan War by Onesimos. It has been prominently displayed at the museum and featured in its handbook of the highlights from the collection. “The kylix is one of the great vases in our collection. It is not a minor thing”, said Marion True. It came to the Getty, without a provenance, from a European dealer in 1983. Occasional articles in the Italian press had charged the kylix to have been illicitly excavated from Cerveteri, an Etruscan grave site north of Rome, but no charge was made directly to the Getty. Ms True was at a conference last year where an Italian scholar pleaded for the return of the vase. Ms True asked for a dossier from the Italian ministry of culture and eventually received some inconclusive papers. Consequently, she made investigations of her own and concluded that the piece had, indeed, come from Cerveteri. “Reliable sources in the market confirmed the allegations to be true and once I had that information, I felt the best thing was to return the vase”, she said, declining to reveal details of her investigation.
The torso, part of a second-century statue of the god Mithra, was bought from a European dealer who claimed it had been in an English collection for many years. It was documented in the eighteenth century as part of the famous Giustiniani Collection. A researcher recently found a blurred photograph of the intact statue and recognised the torso to have been part of it. Informed of this discovery, Ms True approached the Italian keepers of the collection who found the statue to be missing. It is believed that the statue had been taken from the collection and broken up for sale.
Ms True said, “Like other museums, we are trying to determine the history of objects where there may be potential problems. But you cannot predict them. We did not have a clue with the Roman head. With the Giustiniani piece, we had to sort through the fact that we had a completely different history. If you are told it was in an English collection, you do not go looking at Italian collections. And in some of these famous old collections, it can be very difficult to establish what is missing.”
Italy, Greece and Turkey have made claims on many works of art on display in American museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is involved in a long-standing dispute with the Italian government over its collection of third-century BC Hellenistic silver which is said by Italian and American archaeologists to have been illegally excavated.