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Fragile: special handling required

The Getty takes pains to pack a delicate gold headpiece that Greece requested returned.

March 20, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Fourteen years after the J. Paul Getty Museum purchased a 4th century BC Greek funerary wreath for $1.15 million from a Swiss art dealer, 17 months after the Greek government formally demanded its return and eight months after the museum agreed to do so, the delicate gold headpiece is about to go home. Packed in a box within a box within a box and set to travel under tight security, it's scheduled to arrive in Athens on Friday and go on view at the National Archaeological Museum five days later, Greek culture minister Georgios Voulgarakis has announced.

The wreath is a wonder of artistry, made of gold foil with tiny blue and green glass inlays. Its profusion of realistic flowers and leaves is patterned after bellflowers, myrtle, apple and pear blossoms and attached to a slender gold headband. Probably worn on ceremonial occasions, it is thought to have been buried with the cremated remains of its owner in northern Greece.

Despite its small size, about 11 1/4 inches in diameter, the wreath is such a dazzler that it landed on the cover of the museum's "Handbook of the Antiquities Collection," published in anticipation of the 2006 reopening of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.

"A lot of eyes get very big when they see it," says Jeffrey Maish, associate conservator of antiquities at the Villa. But only a few sets of eyes are looking at it now. Swept up in an international effort to sort out the rightful ownership of artworks removed from their homelands, the wreath has been taken out of its showcase at the Villa. It is intricately packed in an open crate that's parked on a rolling cart in "the cage," a subterranean, fortress-like facility used for packing, shipping and temporary storage at the Villa.

The Getty is one of several museums accused by the Italian and Greek governments of having looted antiquities in their collections. The Los Angeles institution has admitted no willful wrongdoing but has returned several objects to their countries of origin.

Citing security concerns and insurance regulations, Getty officials decline to detail transit plans for the wreath and its traveling companion, a marble statue of a young woman, or kore, which also has been on display at the Villa and is being returned to Greece after lengthy negotiations. But a team of specialists explains the labor-intensive process of preparing the wreath for its journey.

"The biggest challenge for us in designing packing is that it's so lightweight," says Kevin Marshall, lead preparator at the Villa. "Most packing materials are heavier than the object. It's foil and wire and there's not much there, so anything we would wrap it with, to secure it and keep it from moving, would also damage it. The leaves are susceptible to any weight, anything that would bend them. Filling the voids would put pressure on the wreath."

Part of the answer, he says, was to adapt the stainless-steel mount used to display the wreath. Marshall attached the mount to the innermost box with open space around it. Then he made "a sort of hat form" out of foam to fit inside the headband. A long bolt runs from the floor of the box through the core of the foam, holding it firmly in place.

"By tightening the bolt, the foam expands," he says, "so it keeps the headband in compression, so it can't move up and down." Before the inner box is sealed, strips of feather-light spun nylon will be laid over the wreath to minimize movement of the leaves and flowers.

The system of nested packing boxes is designed to protect the wreath from impact, vibration and abrupt changes in temperature and humidity.

The smallest box is made of foam board, faced with aluminum on the inside and plastic outside. When that container is sealed, it will create a microclimate. The foam box is set inside a plywood crate, with thick foam separating them. That crate is fitted into a larger plywood crate, cushioned with discs of Sorbothane, a shock-absorbing polyurethane. The outermost crate is reinforced with insect-proof wood. Skid-proof shock absorbers are attached to each corner of the bottom.

Preparing the wreath for travel has called for cooperation among Marshall, conservator Maish and registrar Nancy Russell. Maish, who recalls the wreath as a wilted, slightly deformed work when the Getty acquired it, has studied it and is acutely aware of its fragility.

"It looks like a unified piece," he says, "but there are probably 100 flowers, and each has three or four components. That's a concern. Some parts were almost mass-produced; some were stamped out. Each flower was assembled individually and soldered to a branch. Then the branches were put on the main wreath. That's another concern for shipping. The branches are not soldered to the wreath; they are just set over spikes."

Russell has overseen each move of the wreath, processed condition reports and communicated with staff, shipping agents and couriers according to a strict schedule. "We formulate a Plan A, but there's always a Plan B," she says. "It includes getting couriers here and having them see how the piece is packed, going over condition reports with them and having them see the crate sealed. From the point the wreath leaves here, they escort it to the dock to the truck to the airport, then to the other airport, to a truck, to the other museum. The object is also escorted by security, supervisors at the airport and our shipping agents, who are specialists in shipping fine arts. It is tracked moment by moment."

Traveling artworks from Getty collections are usually accompanied by Getty couriers. In this case, the couriers are from Greece.


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