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Disputed statue to be studied

March 09, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

While reaffirming that it still intends to transfer ownership of one of its most prized artifacts, a statue of the goddess Aphrodite, to Italy, the J. Paul Getty Museum says it will convene a panel of scholars in two months to plan scientific detective work needed to settle unanswered questions concerning the piece, which the Italian government claims as a looted antiquity.

Since last fall, the Getty has been at an impasse in its negotiations with Italian cultural officials over the fate of 52 works in its collection that Italy believes were looted.

Lacking input from the Italians, the Getty has decided to go ahead on its own with a study of the Aphrodite it proposed last October as a prelude to returning the piece.

"We would not be saying we were prepared to transfer title if we did not think that is the right thing to do, but scholars here think we would be remiss" in not trying to answer questions about the statue in the meantime, Ron Hartwig, a spokesman for the J. Paul Getty Trust, said Thursday.

The museum paid a Swiss owner $18 million for the marble and limestone statue in 1988, but questions rose immediately as to whether it might have been looted.

At the May 9 "workshop," experts will review past analysis of residue from the statue that's kept in test tubes, museum director Michael Brand said, while mapping out further scientific tests that need to be done. Italian authorities say the Aphrodite was looted from Sicily, and the Getty agrees there are enough "troubling" questions about its origin to transfer ownership, Brand said.

Hartwig said there's little reason to believe that "something ... extraordinary" will come out of the study to change the museum's mind.

Talks between the Getty and Italian cultural ministers fell apart in November when Italy demanded the return of another of the museum's treasures -- a bronze statue of a young athlete that the Getty contends is not a questionable acquisition. The Getty had proposed returning 26 objects besides the Aphrodite while continuing to negotiate over 20 others. Hartwig said the offer stands, but "we have had no input back" from Italy.

The Getty says it will subject its study to peer review, then publish it on its website.

The scholars listed as workshop participants are Clemente Marconi of New York University and Malcolm Bell III of the University of Virginia, both experts in the art and archeology of ancient Sicily when it was colonized by the Greeks; Pamela I. Chester, an expert on archeological pollen analysis from New Zealand; Rosario Alaimo, a geochemist with expertise in limestone from the University of Palermo in Italy; and John Twilley, a New York-based art conservation scientist.

Hartwig said cultural authorities based in Rome and Sicily have been invited to send representatives to the workshop but that the Getty hasn't gotten an R.S.V.P.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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