Reaction to the Italy/Getty Accord

In a joint press release yesterday the two sides announced the Getty will return 40 objects to Italy. The Cult Statue of a Goddess or Morgantina Aphrodite (pictured here) as its sometimes called will stay at the Getty Villa until 2010. In exchange there will be “broad cultural collaboration that will include loans of significant art works, joint exhibitions, research, and conservation projects.” Of course the sticking point in negotiations had been the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, and Italy agreed to postpone negotiations on that object until the outcome of a new criminal investigation. What could a new investigation could hope to uncover 40 years after the statue’s discovery? Not too much I would gather, especially considering a criminal prosecution was unsuccessful as Italy could not establish the statue was discovered in Italian territorial waters.

There are a number of good reactions to the agreement. Two in particular stand out. The art critic for the LA Times, Christopher Knight rightly points out why both sides need to work together. For one, the Getty Villa provides an excellent backdrop for displaying objects from ancient Mediterranean cultures. As he argues:

The Villa is, in fact, the only art museum in the United States devoted solely to the Greek, Etruscan, Roman and other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean. Loans of major objects to the Met and Boston will certainly add sheen to their great historical collections. But antiquities are just one small part of those museums’ attractions.

There is something to be said for the total immersion that a focused museum provides. Italy, where state collections of significant antiquities are anything but scarce, has the wherewithal to provide magnificent loans that will be extraordinarily meaningful in the Villa’s context. Art has richer import and significance in the context of other art.

But also, the Getty has a lot to offer Italy in return:

[T]he museum can make the best use of those loans, given the Getty’s vast resources. Set aside the legal and ethical issues around the disputed Aphrodite for a moment. The work that has been done on the sculpture, in everything from conservation to historical and scientific research, is extraordinary. Dedicating those same resources to potential loans from Italy as well as to the exceptional objects in the Getty’s own collection holds enormous promise.

The recent study of the Morgantina Aphrodite is an excellent example of the kinds of study which could take place. Finally, Knight argues long term loans are a good pragmatic response to the problem of antiquities looting. There is of course a great demand for antiquities, and the legitimate market is unable to meet this demand. As he says “Smart collection sharing can help relieve the pressure.” I think that’s exactly right.

David Gill echoes this sentiment as well. He has a new blog called looting matters. He and his collaborator, Christopher Chippindale, have done some excellent work using concrete data to establish certain classes of antiquities are most likely illicitly excavated. They have done excellent work on cycladic figurines in particular. This along with the work of Ricardo Elia on apulian vases has helped to establish a solid and definite problem with provenance. Gill notes that several items on the list of 40 objects to be returned are from the collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. He argues many objects in that collection were illicit.

In any event the accord is a welcome development. Source nations and museums should be working together. A combative relationship weakens both sides and distracts from the salient issue: antiquities are an extremely valuable commodity and their trade and disposition must be responsibly regulated.


I misspelled Christopher Chippindale’s name and incorrectly attributed Ricardo Elia’s work. I have corrected the second-to-last paragraph accordingly. Many thanks to David Gill for pointing out my errors.

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