Another Repatriation to Italy

Elisabetta Povoledo reports in today’s New York Times that the University of Virginia Art Museum will likely be returning these two acroliths to Sicily in 2008. An acrolith is a statue in which the body and torso are made of wood while the extremities are carved in marble.

The reports are coming from Italian news outlets, but neither the University of Virginia nor the Italian Culture Ministry are commenting. Of course the University of Virginia has been conducting work at Morgantina for decades, and Malcolm Bell III has written on the antiquities problem in Italy.

Povoledo’s speculation of the chain of title of these acroliths is quite interesting:

Silvio Raffiotta, the Italian prosecutor who for more than a decade investigated the two acroliths, has said they were illegally excavated by tomb robbers in Morgantina in the late 1970s. They are believed to represent the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, whose cult was deeply rooted in Morgantina, which fell to the Romans in 211 B.C.

In all, two heads, three feet and three hands were found; the body, most likely made of wood, might not have survived the centuries underground.

In a 1988 deposition, Giuseppe Mascara, a former tomb robber and antiquities dealer, told Mr. Raffiotta that in the spring of 1979 a young man had offered to sell him the two marble heads, which he said had been excavated in Morgantina.

“They were in the trunk of a car,” Mr. Mascara said in the deposition, and of “exceptional make.” But he did not buy them “because I didn’t know the man offering them to me and because of the asking price, which was enormous.”

Vincenzo Cammarata, another antiquities dealer who has been investigated for handling looted objects, also testified that he had been shown the acroliths, in the summer of 1979.

Mr. Raffiotta’s investigations began some years later and tracked the acroliths to the London showroom of the antiquities dealer Robin Symes, who is being investigated in Italy for dealing in looted art. Before arriving in London, the objects moved through Switzerland, a typical route used to disguise provenance.

In 1980 Mr. Symes sold the pair to Mr. Tempelsman, reportedly for $1 million. No evidence suggests that Mr. Tempelsman was aware that the statues might have been illegally excavated.

Mr. Raffiotta first made a claim to the statues in 1988, while they were on exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The museum immediately returned them to their anonymous lender.

In news reports Mr. Tempelsman later emerged as their owner. In 1994, upon the death of his companion Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, schoolchildren in Aidone sent Mr. Tempelsman a condolence note that also asked him to return the acroliths to their hometown.

Italian officials began quietly negotiating with Mr. Tempelsman, and Forbes magazine has reported that a deal was reached in which Mr. Tempelsman would give the acroliths to an institution, which would then return them to Italy after a specific period.

Mario Bondioli Osio, who was involved in those negotiations, said this week that he could not comment on the details until next year. “But I am convinced they will return home,” he said.

It would be helpful to know how this repatriation came about. The Forbes article does not appear to be published online yet. These acroliths have been displayed at UVA’s Art Museum for five years. Was there some kind of arrangement where Tempelsman could donate the works to UVA, receive the substantial income tax deduction, and then the work would be returned to Italy? If so American taxpayers are subsidizing this repatriation of illicit antiquities, and that strikes me as very troubling.

Another related question: Tempelsman is a diamond dealer, who has been a vocal supporter of the Kimberley process; perhaps there needs to be a kind of Kimberley process for antiquities acquisitions?

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