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A Tangled Journey Home Volume 60 Number 5, September/October 2007
by Eti Bonn-Muller and Eric A. Powell

Priceless artifacts return to Italy and Greece, but their histories remain lost.


On August 1, 2007, the Getty reached an agreement with Italy over a number of objects in the museum's collection that are strongly suspected of being looted. The Getty has pledged to repatriate 40 artifacts, including the statue of a cult goddess and the sculpture of two griffins attacking a doe, illustrated below. (The much-debated bronze statue of a victorious youth, also below, is still the subject of negotiations.) The following text has been updated from its originally published version to reflect recent developments. In this Q&A, archaeologist David Gill gives his perspective on the fate of classical antiquities in North American collections and the future of the twenty-first century museum.

Continue to visit for updates on this story, as well as the ongoing antiquities trafficking trials in Rome of Robert Hecht and former Getty curator Marion True.

Antiquities dealers Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici should have tidied up their desks. Raids by the Italian police in 1995 and 2000 yielded a mountain of evidence--from photos of Greek and Roman artifacts still in the ground to Hecht's handwritten memoir--that showed exactly how the two had been trafficking looted antiquities through the international art market for decades ("Raiding the Tomb Raiders," July/August 2006). Their clients included, among others, three preeminent American cultural institutions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu.


Italy and Greece were simultaneously outraged and delighted with the news. Their long-standing suspicions were confirmed: artifacts recently acquired by major museums had been looted from their soil. And they jumped at the opportunity to get them back. Years of negotiations in the style of a Greek tragedy finally paid off and have resulted in some delicately worded agreements providing for repatriations and reciprocal long-term loans. The following pages showcase a handful of the artifacts that have been (or are slated to be) repatriated from the Met, the MFA, and the Getty, as well as pieces that the Getty only recently agreed to return. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum, and Toledo Museum of Art, among others, have also received official requests to return artifacts.

The recent wave of repatriations has led museums to scale back, if not cease, purchasing artifacts with questionable provenances, or ownership histories. This change in practice is welcome, but as David Gill, an archaeologist at the University of Swansea points out, "There is sadly little to celebrate over the return of these antiquities. [They] represent destroyed archaeological contexts, scientific knowledge lost forever; and even the best scholarship cannot retrieve this information." While the return of these objects may represent a victory of sorts over the illegal antiquities market, Gill insists that "energetic calls for the repatriation of antiquities, however justified, would be better spent in calling for the protection of archaeological sites."

Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, New York

Although the Met maintains that it acquired the artifacts in good faith, the museum has already transferred title of 21 objects to Italy's Ministry of Culture. So far, the Met has sent back four terracotta vessels and is planning to return the other objects over the next few years. As part of the 2006 agreement, the Ministry is allowing the Met to display the remaining pieces for a while longer to coincide with the opening of the museum's new Greek and Roman galleries. The museum also announced that, in return, the Ministry will provide the Met with future loans of up to four years each, per Italian law. Language in the agreement stipulates that the loans be "works of art of equivalent beauty and importance."


Click on thumbnails to learn more about these artifacts.
(Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Museum of Fine Arts
Boston, Massachusetts

In 2005, Italian authorities submitted to the MFA a dossier of 42 artifacts in the museum's collection, 16 of which were linked with Robert Hecht. The dealer is thought to have sold or given the MFA more than 1,000 objects during his career (all of which are suspected of being looted). A year later, the MFA transferred title of 13 of the antiquities to Italy, which dispersed them to regional museums after a special exhibition in Rome. Unlike the Met, the MFA sent all 13 artifacts back right away. The Italian Ministry of Culture has pledged to develop future partnerships with the museum, including the loan of significant objects to the MFA. The first of those pieces, a spectacular marble statue of Eirene, goddess of peace, is now on display in Boston.


Click on thumbnails to learn more about these artifacts.
(Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

J. Paul Getty Museum
Malibu, California

A relatively young institution, the Getty has amassed an extensive collection in the past few decades by aggressively buying ancient art, a practice that left it with many objects of dubious provenance.

In 2005 the Italian government challenged the Getty on 52 objects in its collection, while Greek authorities renewed their campaign to repatriate four Getty acquisitions. The museum reached an agreement with Greece and returned the four objects last spring.

Negotiations between the Getty and Italy, however, have been more complicated. Last November, the Getty agreed to repatriate 26 of the 52 antiquities, but the museum refused to recognize Italy's claim to the bronze statue of a victorious youth (see below). The stalemate led to a breakdown in the negotiations--until recently.

On August 1, 2007, the Getty agreed to transfer to Italy 40 objects, which includes the 26 on which they had already agreed. They are in the process of working out a schedule for the return of the artifacts over next several months (with the exception of the statue of a cult goddess, below, which will remain on view at the Getty until 2010).


Click on thumbnails to learn more about these artifacts. (Courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum)

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America