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The Getty's troubled goddess

A TIMES INVESTIGATION

Evidence mounts that the centerpiece of its antiquities collection, acquired despite several warnings, was looted.

January 03, 2007|Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch | Times Staff Writers

Liberated from its shipping crates, the ancient statue drew a crowd of employees when it arrived in December 1987 at the J. Paul Getty Museum's antiquities conservation lab.

The 7 1/2 -foot figure had a placid marble face and delicately carved limestone gown. It was thought to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Some who came to see it believed that the sculpture would become the greatest piece in the museum's antiquities collection.

One man, however, saw trouble.

Luis Monreal, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, saw signs that the object had been looted. There was dirt in the folds of the gown, and the torso had what appeared to be new fractures, suggesting that the statue had been recently unearthed and broken apart for easy smuggling.

"Any museum professional looking at an archeological piece in those conditions had to suspect it came from an illicit origin," Monreal recalled in a recent interview.

He said he warned the museum's director not to buy the statue and asked him to test the pollen in the dirt, which might indicate where the work had been found. The test was never done.

Today, the 2,400-year-old Aphrodite, the best-known work in the Getty's antiquities collection, is at the center of a showdown with Italy over looted ancient artworks.

Since buying it in 1988 for a Getty ancient-art record of $18 million, the museum has defended the statue's legality, relying on the dealer's assertion that it came from a Swiss collector. That collector has said it had been in his family since 1939, the year it became unlawful to excavate and export antiquities from Italy without government permission.

To claim the object, Italian officials would have to establish that the statue had been found in their country and removed sometime after 1939, something the Getty says the officials have never convincingly done.

A Times investigation has found new information that undermines the statue's official history, bolsters claims that it was illicitly excavated in Sicily and shows that the museum bought the Aphrodite despite repeated warnings that it had been looted.

Members of the Swiss collector's family recently told The Times that they had never seen or heard of the Aphrodite before its purchase by the Getty attracted widespread publicity.

Two Italians have said they saw parts of the Aphrodite in Sicily in the late 1970s, decades after it became illegal in Italy to remove antiquities without government permission.

Their accounts also suggest that the goddess now on view at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades could be a recent composite -- a possibility the museum's own experts wrestled with soon after the statue arrived.

Today, the Getty has conceded doubts about the statue's origins. The Aphrodite, which once promised to set the Getty's collection apart, has become an icon of the museum's troubled past.

The goddess surfaces

Marion True, the Getty's antiquities curator at the time, says she first saw the Aphrodite in an art dealer's London warehouse in 1986.

The goddess was a rare example of a relatively intact cult statue, a larger-than-life representation of a deity that once stood in a Greek sanctuary.

The statue combined a marble head, arm and foot with a limestone body. Such "acroliths" have been found in the ruins of Greek colonies in Sicily, the southern Italian mainland and occasionally North Africa, where marble was scarce. True later wrote that the artwork was one of the few surviving monumental sculptures from the 5th century BC -- the pinnacle of Greek culture.

"The proposed statue of Aphrodite would not only become the single greatest piece of ancient art in our collection; it would be the greatest piece of classical sculpture in this country and any country outside of Greece and Great Britain," True wrote in her report to the board.

The statue had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, at an opportune moment.

True had just taken over the antiquities department, with a mandate to build the museum's collection by buying the best on the market. When she saw the statue in the London warehouse of Robin Symes, then considered the world's leading antiquities dealer, she had little doubt it was authentic and had been created on the southern Italian mainland or in Sicily.

As for whether the statue had been legally excavated and exported, True and other Getty officials relied on the word of Symes. The dealer said he had good legal title and had purchased it from the collection of an unnamed "supermarket magnate" in Switzerland.

During negotiations over the statue, True received an anonymous note warning her not to buy it because it had been illegally removed from Italy, possibly Sicily, according to the testimony of Swiss dealer Freida Tchakos Nussberger in an unrelated looting case.

Nussberger said she learned of the warning from Symes and his partner, who were her friends. True's attorney said in a statement to The Times that the curator never got such a note.

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