A beautifully preserved group of three life-size terracotta figures dating from 300 BC illegally unearthed, museum and law enforcement officials said.
The three items were seized in April as part of an investigation into an accused Italian antiquities smuggler, Gianfranco Becchina, 83, who has been convicted of receiving stolen antiquities from Greece, officials said. The warrant stated its present value at $8 million. The Getty Museum announced the return on Thursday.
“When we informed the museum of the investigation and the evidence we had, they were fully cooperative,” said Matthew Bogdanos, head of the prosecutor’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit. Mr Bogdanos said his office was able to cross state lines with the help of federal agents from the Homeland Security Service, as the investigation in its jurisdiction.
Getty’s executive director Timothy Potts said in an interview Friday that the removal of the group known as “Orpheus and the Sirens” was a serious blow. “It is a very important example of ancient art and a loss to our collection and to our visitors,” he said, “but there is clear evidence that it was excavated illegally, so we had no choice but to send it back to Italy.” .”
Massimo Osanna, the director-general for museums at Italy’s Ministry of Culture, said talks with the Getty about the return of “Orpheus and the Sirens” began last February, when museum officials visited Rome. The subsequent seizure order “accelerated the situation,” he said.
The seizure and return will strip the Getty Villa Museum of one of its signature pieces, which took pride of place at the entrance to the museum. A major addition to the main Los Angeles museum that was built to recreate a luxurious Roman mansion, the Getty Villa Museum is full of Greco-Roman antiquities.
In 2001, Becchina was briefly detained in Italy and charged with receiving stolen goods, illegally exporting goods and conspiracy to trade goods. In 2011, after a lengthy legal battle, the charges were dropped because the statute of limitations had expired. But the judge in the case said he had to surrender thousands of stolen ancient Roman artifacts because they had clearly been looted by grave robbers.
The three figures were purchased by Getty himself in 1976, museum officials said, pointing to Getty’s diary entry for the day, which stated the purchase price was $550,000. The extreme vulnerability of “Orpheus and the Sirens” requires specially tailored equipment and procedures, the museum said.
The museum said it has removed the objects from the public and will ship them to Rome in September. According to Getty’s website, the group was likely colorfully painted and used to decorate a grave. Officials said it will be on display at the recently opened Museum of Rescued Art in Rome before finding a permanent home in Taranto, Puglia.
Osanna added that there is still disagreement with the Getty over a statue, ‘Victorious Youth’, also known as the Getty Bronze, which has been the subject of contention between the museum and Italy for decades. “We still hope to reach an agreement,” he said.
Italian authorities say the bronze was smuggled out of Italy without proper export papers and have accused the museum of deliberately negligent in conducting due diligence before purchasing it.
The Getty disputes that it was in fact a Greek statue discovered in international waters hundreds of years after it was crafted, so it has only a fleeting connection to Italy. The museum has said claims to repatriate it are unfounded.
As with other museums, the Getty has returned numerous items to Italy in recent years after there was evidence that they had been traded. For example, in 2007 the museum handed over 40 objects from its antiquities collection after what was described as a “long and complex negotiation” with Italian officials.
The Antiquities Trafficking Unit itself returned 142 items to Italy last month that mostly belonged to billionaire industrialist Michael H. Steinhardt and the Royal-Athena Galleries in Manhattan. Officials said many of those items seized last year had passed through Becchina’s hands.