The J. Paul Getty Museum has agreed in principle to return some of the four antiquities Greek authorities have claimed were illegally removed from that country, and will continue negotiations over the remaining pieces.
In a meeting in Athens with Greek cultural officials Tuesday morning, the Getty's new director, Michael Brand, said he would recommend that the museum return an unspecified number of the contested objects "in the near future." Talks about the remaining items will be carried out by delegations from the two parties over the next two to three months.
"Once the requirements of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture are met, a fruitful cooperation which could include long-term loans, can start," said Brand and Giorgos Voulgarakis, the Greek minister of culture, in a joint statement released Tuesday after three hours of meetings. The agreement marks the Getty's first concrete step to resolve a decade-long dispute with Greek authorities and suggests the museum's willingness to return disputed antiquities to resolve other patrimony claims.
The contested objects, which Greek authorities say were looted from archeological sites in Greece, include a gold funerary wreath, an inscribed tombstone and a \o7kore\f7, or marble torso of a young woman, all dating to about 400 B.C. and considered masterpieces of the Getty's antiquities collection. The fourth object, an archaic votive relief bought by J. Paul Getty in 1955, is believed to have been stolen from a documented excavation. Greek law has prohibited the unlicensed export of archeological objects since 1830.
"We feel we're making progress more quickly than expected," Brand said in a phone interview from Athens, stressing that any decision to return objects must first be approved by the Getty's board of trustees. "We found some common ground."
Returning some contested Greek objects, perhaps in exchange for long-term loans, could create a framework for the Getty's more complex negotiations with Italy, which is demanding the return of 52 antiquities. Many of the Italian objects are related to the ongoing Rome trial of Marion True, the Getty's former antiquities curator accused of trafficking in looted art.
Brand said the museum was still considering the demands of Italian authorities, who presented evidence to Getty officials during a meeting in February.
The Getty acquired the first three Greek objects in 1993, despite that country's protestations they were likely looted. In 1996, Greek archeological authorities formally requested that the items be returned, citing archeological evidence that they were of Greek origin.
Around the same time, Italian authorities raised similar concerns about the wreath and the \o7kore\f7, suggesting they may have been of Greek construction but looted from sites in Italy. Italy later dropped the claim for the wreath, but the \o7kore\f7 remains part of the case against True.
The Getty repeatedly rebuffed the requests, and in November Greece decided to forward the case to a public prosecutor to pursue criminal charges. The Greek art squad has begun collaborating with Italian authorities, and launched a series of raids -- including a search of True's vacation home on the island of Paros -- looking for looted art.
Neither the prosecutor nor representatives of the Greek art squad were present at the meetings in Athens, and it is not clear how an agreement with the Getty would affect their inquiry.
Tuesday's agreement marks the most recent action by an American museum in a growing debate about the ownership of archeological items. The Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed in February to return 21 antiquities in exchange for loans of objects "of equal importance and beauty" from Italian museums. The Boston Museum of Fine Art will meet with Italian authorities Wednesday to discuss dozens of contested objects in its collection, and Princeton University Museum officials met with Italian officials earlier this month.
Correspondent Nikolas Zirganos in Athens contributed to this report.