La Dea di Aidone

An Aerial View of Morgantina

Jason Felch reports from Aidone, Italy on the goddess formerly known as the “Getty Aphrodite” returned to Italy:

Since the Getty’s controversial purchase of the statue in 1988 for $18 million, painstaking investigations by police, curators, academics, journalists, attorneys and private investigators have pieced together the statue’s journey from an illicit excavation in Morgantina in the late 1970s to the Getty Museum. 

The Getty returned the goddess to Italy this spring, and a new exhibition showing the statue and other repatriated antiquities from a private American collector and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was inaugurated here last week. 

The goddess’ new home is a 17th century Capuchin monastery that now serves as the archaeological museum in Aidone, a hilltop village of about 6,000 residents. The cozy museum, which holds up to 150 visitors at a time, contains the most important objects discovered in the nearby ruins of Morgantina.

Someone wrote to me this morning and said that we could offer an apt byline for this story by calling it ‘what comes around goes around’. That may be right, and the law leaves it up to Italy to decide where and how this object should be displayed. One hopes that the original looters will come forward in the coming months to reveal where they unearthed the object in the late 1970’s.

One also wonders whether such attention have been lavished on the statue had the statue remained at the Aidone museum after it was unearthed by archaeologists? Do we need to reconfigure how the public thinks about antiquities, encouraging them to visit them much nearer their original context? Does it matter how many will appreciate and can enjoy repatriated works if they are where they ‘belong’? How important is viewing the goddess in her context, even if far fewer people may seek her out?

In much the same way works of art like Munch’s The Scream, or even the Mona Lisa became widely known after their theft it seems likely that more visitors will visit the small Aidone museum; and one hopes help buttress the local economy in a more lasting way which will forge connections encouraging the locals to act as good stewards to other objects and information Morgantina may hold. The Getty certainly will not be acquiring any recently looted antiquities from Morgantina any time soon and one doubts very much of that $18 million purchase price made its way to the actual looters—those profits seemingly went to the dealers closer to the Getty.

  1. Jason Felch, “Goddess statue: Once a Getty prize, Italy’s goddess statue remains a mystery,” L.A. Times, May 29, 2011,,0,6748034.story.
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" In effect the goddess has been returned to those who looted her. . ."

La dea di Morgantina

Catherine Schofield Sezgin interviews Jason Felch, co-author of “Chasing Aphrodite”. An excerpt:

ARCA Blog: When you were in Italy, did you wonder if anyone in the crowd had made money from selling “Aphrodite” to the Getty? How well were you able to explain this transaction in your book? 

Jason: Yes, there is plenty of irony here. In effect, the goddess has been returned to those who looted her, broke her into pieces and smuggled her out of the country for profit. Aidone is a very small town, and I was told that several of the locals who attended the ceremonies used to be clandestini — the Sicilian term for looters.

Read the full interview here.

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Chasing Aphrodite Reviewed

 “Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 375 pp).

Jason Felch &
Ralph Frammolino

Disputes over works of art and antiquities take many forms. Nations and individuals with claims to cultural objects pursue their claims in a number of areas; only seldom are these battles seen in courts of law. As a consequence many of the precedents set for party’s actions are seen outside the public view. This underscores the terrific resource which Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino have created with their new book, officially released yesterday.

Their terrific series of investigative reports for the Los Angeles Times served as the jumping off point for the work. That series of articles was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and helped me crystallize much of my thinking about the antiquities trade and the role of art museums. Those reports, though terrific, were limited by the length of a newspaper article, and the authors continued their reporting in the form of this work to allow the space to explore these issues. In so doing they have created what will stand as the definitive account of the troubled times at the Getty from its creation in the 1970s through 2007. The book takes the form of a straightforward and rigorous account of the events which led to first the creation of the wealthiest art-acquiring institution in the world, its unfortunate choices, and its painful public shaming.

The authors maintain their reporters tone, which serves the material well. I think partisans on both sides of the heritage debates will find much to admire in the consistent and accurate depiction of characters and events. One point for which the authors deserve high marks is their description of the laws at issue—they swiftly and accurately describe the complex network of U.S., Italian and International laws without letting it overwhelm the story they are telling. There are also references and notes for further readings. The book maintains a lively and direct style throughout. I was provided an electronic copy of the work, which had no page numbers, so I am unable to reference the quotations below.

The sources for the book are impressive. They include the personal records of Arthur Houghton, who emerges as an early attempted reformer, Getty records, private correspondence, court records in Rome, and interviews with over three-hundred key individuals. The authors note the only important figures they were not able to interview were J. Paul Getty; Jiri Frel, the first antiquities curator at the Getty, who emerges as an early villain; and Marion True, a complicated figure who because of her unwise acquisitions at the Getty all while championing reform leave me feeling more baffled as to her motivations than ever.

From Left: Barbara Whitney, Deborah Gribbon, John Walsh and
Marion True in happier days

One really does wonder at times with the benefit of hindsight what True was thinking. She earned the contempt of her colleagues in the Museum community for aggressively implementing stringent acquisition standards at the Getty and criticizing the acquisitions by other museums, all while directly purchasing objects which were surely looted. The authors really do well in juxtaposing her actions at the Getty with her public rhetoric about the antiquities trade. Their description of her testimony at a 1999 Cultural Property Advisory Committee meeting evaluating an Italian request for import restrictions into the United States really highlights the hypocrisy:

. . . True strongly defended the Italian request. She deemed “improper” the suggestions of some that it was better to have illicit antiquities on well-tended American shelves than to let the careless Italians keep them in dusty exhibits. American museums were just as careless with their objects, True said. Many still didn’t have updated inventories or pictures of their own items . . . True noted that Italy was becoming more generous with loans of ancient art. Policies that expected Italy to be able to document objects that had been looted, like the one the Getty used to rely on, were irretrievably flawed.

Such comments surely did not endear True to her colleagues. In fact, the Getty had violated many legal and ethical rules to acquire their objects, and once they had a renowned collection had declared, under True’s direction, that the rules of the trade had changed, and other institutions must follow the Getty’s lead. This may perhaps explain why the Getty helped support True by paying her legal fees in her criminal trial in Rome, but had distanced itself publicly.

The “Getty Bronze”, one of the
few disputed objects
which has not been returned

Anyone who has followed the Getty and cultural heritage issues in recent years knows well how this story ends, so the most fascinating parts of the book emerge at the beginning, with an account of the chance discovery and smuggling of the “Getty Bronze” from the Adriatic and the town of Fano, and the early days of the Getty.

Those early days set the Getty on what seems to have been a course which could not have avoided trouble. Particulary in chapter four, titled “Worth the Price”. Perhaps because he seems to have offered a great deal of assistance to the authors, Arthur Houghton emerges as an important early figure who attempted to check some of Jiri Frel’s unethical and illegal conduct, particularly in . Early on Houghton recommended that the Getty adopt what he called “optical due diligence” which meant “[t]he Getty should create the appearance that the objects it was acquiring had been carefully vetted, but at the same time avoid ‘certain knowledge’ of where they were actually coming from.” This concept of optical due diligence will likely strike a familiar chord with many observers, but a phrase which I have not seen expressed with such simplicity before.

As the authors note, Houghton was far more concerned with tax fraud that Frel was committing on a grand scale. He would routinely accept donations from wealthy donors, vastly increasing the appraised value of the objects. As the authors note the optical due diligence “was a surprisingly cynical position for Houghton to take, given his moral outrage at Frel’s transgressions. But in his mind, tax fraud and forgery were entirely different from breaking the export laws of a neglectful foreign country, especially when the goal was to educate and enlighten Americans.” In fact, Houghton’s actions were probably consistent with the vast majority of American curators at the time. And given the culture in the early 1980’s, Houghton was probably right that the Getty would likely earn a lot of trouble for itself fast if the IRS discovered the endemic tax fraud.

Aphrodite (or Persephone)
 has been returned to Aidone

Though the Getty now boasts an impressive legacy of research and vast works of art, the early days of the institution are less-than-stellar. One wonders if J. Paul Getty was really the dour, humorless penny-pincher he is depicted to be. The Getty originated not as part of some grand passion for the arts but as a passing hobby of a fantastically rich oil man. As such, those early founders of the Getty trust emerge as important trend-setters who would struggle initially with vast sums of money, and a desire to create one of the world’s foremost cultural institutions. That they succeeded is a testament to the vast wealth they were provided, and also the passion that these objects instill. But the question we must ask is at what cost?

A major theme I see emerging from the book are the incentives which helped fuel this looting. More attention has been directed at recently-acquired objects certainly, but Marion True was an early star in her field because she created galleries and exhibitions of objects with skill in such a way that made the public take notice. The public likes to look at these beautiful objects, and advocates need to continue to do the hard work to essentially train them to be ‘context connoisseurs’, meaning just because an object is beautiful, does nto mean that it should belong in a museum. The path these objects take matters. Had the Getty played by the rules, and not acquired many of these dubious objects, would it have emerged as such an important cultural institution? I’m not sure it would have. We see many poor choices by Marion True in the work, but she also emerges as one of a number of individuals at the Getty, yet she is the only one to have been shamed in such a public way and put on trial. In a perfect world many more probably should have taken blame for these acquisitions.

And the reason for that likely lies in the special esteem that the looted objects instill in us. The Italian government wanted to do everything it could to secure the return of these objects while also ensuring that future illicit activity would not take place, but to secure those returns took many years of hard investigation, and time-consuming and expensive legal negotiation. The Italian team which worked to pressure the Getty and other institutions into returning objects—Maurizio Fiorilli, Paolo Ferri, Francesco Rutelli and others—all emerge as sympathetic figures. Yet they would have had grave difficulty securing the returns had they employed a more direct strategy of prosecution of individuals at the Getty. Their efforts to focus charges on Robert Hecht, Giacomo Medici and Marion True appear to have been an effort to pressure the Getty into returning objects.

The work focuses on the Getty and Marion True and the direct line which can be drawn to looters in Italy. The limestone Aphrodite (which may in fact be Persephone) serves as an apt metaphor for the antiquities trade as a whole. When you heap such esteem on objects, without respecting its past, you risk distorting the object into something it never was. The limestone statue and its marble head, with its stunning depiction of billowing fabric was likely looted from Morgantina in Sicily. The authors introduce the objects at issue well I think, describing their composition, what we know of their history, and also noting what has been destroyed by looters. One feels outrage at the way this statue, perhaps the finest example of classical Greek sculpture outside of London or Greece was smuggled to Switzerland in a carot truck:

Some had seen the body of the statue—without the head—in three pieces at the house of a looter in Gela . . . The huge statue had been toppled over onto a blunt object, breaking it cleanly into three pieces that would be easier to hide during transport. The clean breaks also would make the statue easier to reassemble. The pieces were then driven to Milan, buried under a load of carrots in the back of a Fiat truck, and transported north across the border to Chiasso [Switzerland].

They note as well that Morgantina “proved a bonanza for local looters. After the excavators returned home from a summer of digging, the site fell prey to looters from the nearby hill town of Aidone. [Malcolm] Bell did what he could to fend them off, hiring guards to watch the site during the winter months. But the tombaroli . . . proved tenacious competitors for the relics of the ancient city. Bell once returned to the ruins after Sunday supper and stumbled upon a group hastily emptying a tomb of some 350 objects.” These accounts are disturbing, and it was the Getty’s purchase of objects which, though beautiful and rare, had destroyed context.

Many will likely point to the illegal and unethical conduct of the Getty in the work, and they are right to do so. Yet the archaeological community and nations of origin have much to answer for as well. When these ancient cities are studied, concern needs to be directed at the source to how the locals will react. What good is a trained archaeologist who painstakingly unearths parts of an ancient city, only to have her work undone at night by looters. That really is the legacy of the dispute between Italy and the Getty which the authors skillfully detail. Moving forward how can we envision a collaborative network which follows the law, but also protects sites, allows for professional excavation, and allows us to steward these precious resources for future generations.

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The Morgantina Goddess Returns to Aidone

Greeted by the Carabinieri, townspeople and a brass band:

Jason Felch reports for the LA Times:

When the Getty bought the Aphrodite for $18 million in 1988, the statue’s importance outweighed the signs of its illicit origins. “The proposed statue of Aphrodite would not only become the single greatest piece of ancient art in our collection; it would be the greatest piece of Classical sculpture in this country and any country outside of Greece and Great Britain,” wrote former antiquities curator Marion True in proposing the acquisition. 

For years, the museum clung to the implausible story that the statue had been in the family of a former Swiss policeman, Renzo Canavesi, for more than 50 years after being purchased by his father in Paris in the 1930s. 

It took dramatic evidence of the statue’s illicit origins — and an alleged link to organized crime — to destroy the credibility of that cover story and persuade the Getty’s board to return the statue.
In 2006, private detectives hired by the Getty uncovered more than a dozen photos of the statue. One shows fragments of the goddess scattered in a pile of dirt on a brown tile floor. In another, pieces of varying sizes were lined up in rows on a large, thick plastic sheet. Another photo showed the statue’s marble face still encrusted with grime. 

It is not clear who took the photos or where they were taken. But the fact that the statue had been in fragments and covered in dirt as recently as the early 1980s — the date on the photographs — was seen as clear evidence that it had been illegally excavated not long before the Getty bought it. 

The investigators’ discovery of the photos is described in a forthcoming book about the dispute. “Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum” was written by this reporter and former Times staff writer Ralph Frammolino, and will be published May 24 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Should be a fascinating work.

  1. Jason Felch, Getty’s Aphrodite is returned to Sicily, L.A. Times, March 23, 2011,,0,6998689.story (last visited Mar 23, 2011).
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The Morgantina Treasure Returns to Sicily

“Here they are not orphans.”

So says Enrico Caruso, the director of the Archaeological park in Morgantina upon the installation of the Morgantina Silver in Aidone, Sicily. The 16 ancient Greek silver objects had been partially returned to Italy as a part of a 2006 agreement between Italy and the Met, and will now be on display near the site where they were likely looted nearly 30 years ago. Both Italy and the Met will share joint custody of these objects, and the objects will rotate between Aidone and the Met every four years. In this way visitors to both the Met and Aidone will be able to decide for themselves where they prefer to view and appreciate this collection of objects.

One of the tireless campaigners for the return of the silver objects has been Malcolm Bell III who is quoted in the New York Times:

“’The silver can perhaps shed light on the brutal, dramatic circumstances of the final years of the Second Punic War and, seen within the framework of the house, we get a sense of the art and the material culture of Hellenistic Sicily,’ said Malcolm Bell III, professor emeritus of art history and archaeology at the University of Virginia and the director of excavations at Morgantina. ‘They have truly been recontextualized, and that is really important.’”

The Morgantina Objects, as displayed at the Met

And yet I think the reason this recontextualization is important can be tied to the experience of viewing the landscape, the situs of the objects, and the current culture in the region.

Next year the Getty will return the statue of Aphrodite to Aidone, and residents there surely hope visitors will seek out the repatriated objects and boos the local economy. One of the striking themes which emerged from Elisabetta Povoledo’s reporting of the story are the economic benefits which will accrue to the city and territory when visitors flock to see the ancient objects. There appears to be a shift in culture, away from tolerating the looting of sites and the clandestine sales of these objects and a move towards responsibly managing these pieces of heritage.

And yet I wonder as well whether much would be made of this collection of silver, or the Aphrodite had these objects not been displayed in Los Angeles and New York, and then sent back in a very public way.

  1. Elisabetta Povoledo, Morgantina Silver Returns to Italy in Aidone Museum, The New York Times, December 5, 2010, (last visited Dec 7, 2010).
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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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Italy and the Getty Reach a Deal

The Associated Press is reporting an agreement has been reached between Italy and the Getty. The baseball trading deadline yesterday must have inspired both sides. As expected the deal will include loans from Italy. The Morgantina Aphrodite will stay at the Getty until 2010. The two sides agreed to postpone negotiations over the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth. What remains unclear is how this deal will affect the prosecution of former curator Marion True. One would hope the Italians were not prosecuting her merely to leverage the Getty into returning objects.

Here’s the wire story:

ROME (AP) – The Italian Culture Ministry said Wednesday it has reached a deal with the J. Paul Getty Museum for the return of 40 artifacts _ the latest victory in Italy’s efforts to recover antiquities it says were looted from the country and sold to museums worldwide.

Italy and the Getty also agreed on widespread cultural cooperation, which will include loans of other treasures to the Los Angeles museum, the ministry said in a statement.

“Both parties declare themselves satisfied with the fact that, after long and complicated negotiations, an agreement has been reached and now they move ahead with a relationship of renewed cooperation,” the statement said. The Getty has denied knowingly buying illegally obtained objects. Most of the artifacts will be returned within the next few months, according to a calendar drawn up by experts from both sides.

The agreement includes one of the most prized works in dispute, a 5th century B.C. statue of the goddess Aphrodite, which will remain on display at the Getty until 2010, the ministry said. Italian authorities believe the 2.2-meter (7-foot) statue, bought by the Getty for US$18 million in 1988, was looted from an ancient Greek settlement in Sicily.

The ministry had threatened to suspend all collaboration with the Getty if a deal was not reached by the end of July. Despite the agreement announced Wednesday, the fate of some treasures that had been in contention was left hanging.

The statement said the two sides agreed to postpone further discussion on at least one key piece that had held up negotiations for months: the «Statue of a Victorious Athlete,» a Greek bronze believed to date from around 300 B.C.

The museum believes the bronze was found in international waters in 1964 off Italy’s eastern coast and that Rome has no claim on it. The Italians say the statue was pulled up by fishermen near Fano and that even if the find occurred in international waters the statue was still brought into the country and then exported illegally.

Italian authorities have launched a worldwide campaign to recover looted treasures and had been at odds with the Getty over dozens of antiquities they say were illegally dug up and smuggled out of the country despite laws making all antiquities found in Italy state property.

Authorities have signed separate deals with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for the return of a total of 34 artifacts _ including Hellenistic silverware, Etruscan vases and Roman statues _ in exchange for loans of other treasures.

Italy has also placed former Getty curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht on trial in Rome, charging them with knowingly receiving dozens of archaeological treasures that had been stolen from private collections or dug up illicitly.

The two Americans deny wrongdoing. It was not immediately clear if the political agreement would affect the trial.

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Morgantina Antiquities

Elisabetta Povoledo has an article in today’s NY Times on the Morgantina Aphrodite currently on display in the Getty Villa. I’ve written about this particular dispute many times, most recently in relation to the Getty’s Francavilla Marittima project which brought together experts to try and determine where precisely the statue originated.

Here’s an excerpt:

In the Aidone Archaeological Museum, which houses artifacts from a nearby dig at an ancient Greek settlement called Morgantina, visitors settle for a large poster at the entrance depicting the statue and announcing a national campaign to bring it back.

“This is her rightful place,” said Nicola Leanza, the culture minister for Sicily, who, like many others, argues that the goddess was illegally excavated from Morgantina.

The Getty, which bought the statue in 1988 for $18 million, isn’t so sure.

For nearly two decades it fended off the Italian government’s sporadic claims to the sculpture. But as the demands grew more pressing, the Getty acknowledged that there might be “problems” attached to the acquisition. In November it announced that it would study the object and reach a decision on whether to hand it over within a year.

“We are on target to achieve that objective,” Ron Hartwig, a Getty spokesman, said in an e-mail message. (The museum has already offered to transfer title to the statue.)

Yet the people of Aidone are tired of waiting. For this town the statue has become a blazing symbol of Italy’s legal and moral battle against foreign museums and private collectors that bought archaeological artifacts with hazy backgrounds, plundering the nation of its heritage.

It’s an interesting article which summarizes Italy’s position, and why repatriating antiquities means so much to individual communities both because of the cultural wealth, but also in terms of new visitors. That may also indicate why the institutions currently holding them are loathe to return them even though they may have been acquired without enough due diligence of checking into their provenance.

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Getty Panel Convened over the "Cult Statue of a Goddess"

The Conference at the Getty Museum which was convened to study the “Cult Statue of a Goddess”, probably of Aphrodite, took place last week. I discussed this before here. The NY Times discussed it last week here. Lee Rosenbaum gives her take here.

As I’ve said, scientific study is welcome, however the dysfunctional antiquities market gave us a situation where we have a very beautiful Greek statue but are unsure about where it came from. The Getty has already agreed to return the statute, but has taken 1 year to study it.

Sharon Waxman wrote in the NY Times: The Getty has not reached a formal conclusion based on the conference, which was convened at the museum on Wednesday and was closed to the public. But museum officials and some of the experts who attended said their discussions buttressed what the museum says are its own suspicions that the statue, acquired by the Getty in 1988, might have been illegally excavated in southern Italy.

So the panel has suspicions that the statue came from Sicily, but no clear evidence. Clearly the Getty has dramatically shifted the way it acquires antiquities. Since last October it has used 1970 and the UNESCO Convention as a starting date for new acquisitions. The Getty does not appear to be contributing to the illicit trade at present, and that may be the most welcome development. It will be interesting to guage Italy’s response in the coming months.

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