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The return of antiquities a blow to Getty

Forty disputed artworks that are hallmarks of the museum's collection will be returned to Italy in end to a long legal fight.

August 02, 2007|Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino | Special to The Times

The J. Paul Getty Museum's agreement Wednesday to return 40 disputed antiquities to Italy brings to a close a cultural and legal fight that has dogged the institution for decades. But it comes at a high price, claiming some of the finest pieces in the Getty's collection.

After months of impasse, the breakthrough came with a flurry of faxes late Tuesday. Of the 46 pieces Italy had demanded, the museum agreed to send back its signature statue of Aphrodite, 10 other masterpieces and more than two dozen other important vases and sculptures.

The objects are expected to be taken off display in the fall, museum officials said, and returned to Italy by the end of the year. The exception is the Aphrodite statue, which will remain at Getty Villa, the Getty's recently renovated antiquities museum near Malibu, until December 2010.

Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, speaking to reporters Wednesday evening at the Parliament, where he was attending to other business, said the deal with the Getty was "an agreement of historic value."

Getty Museum Director Michael Brand also welcomed the accord, which came after two years of often-rocky negotiations.

But he acknowledged the settlement's toll on the Getty's collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities, considered one of the best in the country.

"It will change the status," he said Wednesday. "We're losing great masterpieces. In other cases we're losing smaller, less aesthetically important items, but which might be a linchpin of a particular display."

Many of the objects are now prominently exhibited at the Villa.

The 7 1/2 -foot marble and limestone Aphrodite is the focal point of the Gods and Goddesses gallery on the Villa's ground floor. A statue of Apollo that the museum agreed to return dominates the first-floor Basilica gallery.

The painted sculpture "Griffons Attacking a Fallen Doe" greets visitors as they exit the second-story elevators.

The agreement came after both parties agreed to postpone discussion about the Getty bronze, a 4th-century BC statue of an athlete, whose fate had been a sticking point in the negotiations.

As part of the deal, Italy has agreed to make long-term loans from its museums to the Getty, which Brand said would help plug holes left by the returns.

The accord with the Getty is the Italian government's third and most significant settlement to date with American museums, in what has been a decades-long effort to recover looted objects. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return 21 objects, including its prized Euphronios krater, while Boston's Museum of Fine Art has sent back 13 artifacts.

But the Getty has long been a central focus for Italy.

The museum's youth and wealth made it an ideal target. Unlike its East Coast peers, which built the bulk of their collections in the decades before tough new laws governing antiquity purchases, the Getty came late to the collecting game. The museum didn't receive its enormous endowment until the early 1980s, just as the United States was ratifying an international agreement that, among other things, banned traffic in artifacts that had left Italy without permission after 1939.

Fine antiquities, a passion of the museum's benefactor and namesake, could still be found on the market. But museum officials often turned a blind eye to whether the artifacts had been illegally excavated and exported from their country of origin.

In one 1987 meeting, Harold Williams, then Getty chief executive, and John Walsh, the museum's then-director, grappled with whether they should continue to purchase suspect artifacts with the aim of conserving them and displaying them publicly.

"Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?" Williams asked during that meeting, according to Walsh's notes. Although both men say the question was hypothetical, it captured a dilemma that would dog the Getty for years as it continued to build its collection.

Italy and other countries often objected to the antiquity purchases of U.S. museums, but they lacked hard evidence to prove the objects had been looted.

That changed in 1995, when authorities raided the Swiss warehouse of an Italian middleman and discovered thousands of Polaroid photographs showing objects that had been recently -- and therefore illegally -- excavated and sold.

With that evidence in hand, Italy built a criminal case against the Italian middleman, an American dealer and Marion True, the Getty's former antiquities curator whose name appeared often in correspondence with the other two.

Eventually, Italian authorities said they had traced dozens of looted objects to the Getty and filed a civil suit demanding their return.

As curator, True recommended the purchase of 18 of the 40 objects being returned, and the acquisitions were approved by both the Getty's then-director, Walsh, and its board of trustees. But in 2005, True was the only Getty official charged by Italy with a crime.

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