We Visited Morgantina and Aidone, they were great

This June I had the chance to visit the town of Aidone in Southern Sicily. It’s a town that I’ve written and thought a lot about, so when we had the opportunity to pop up from teaching in Valletta for a long weekend, we jumped. Its fame comes as the result of a series of looting scandals.

The village and the archaeological site has been written about a great deal, but I haven’t come across many who have actually visited the site and the Muesum. For decades, the site it represented in a tangible way the competing interests of illicit looters and archaeologists. Archaeologists would excavate during the summer, looters would raid the site after they left. Year after year the cycle continued.

If you are reading this you probably have some strong feelings about where the Dea di Aidone (aka the Getty Goddess) should reside. This short essay is a collection of my own thoughts about the ancient site of Morgantina and the nearby town of Aidone.

To give a bit of the history as I understand it, the island of Sicily was subject to the control of many Mediterranean civilizations, and Morgantina’s history reflects this. Morgantina was founded perhaps seven or eight centuries before Christ. At some point it came under the control of Syracuse. Much of what now exists at this site reflects a city at the edge of the ancient Greek world. At some point in the third century BCE Morgantina may have chosen to throw their lot in with Carthage, a choice which likely proved costly when it was finally captured by Rome. Morgantina may have fallen on hard times, and the city itself seems to have been largely deserted by the First Century CE.

IMG_3996
The baths at Morgantina. Notice the painting on the walls

Thesite has been the subject of a number of archaeological excavations, mainly by American archaeologists, and also the target of antiquities looters who ultimately sent objects on through the illicit black market in antiquities. Many of the most beautiful items looted ended up in American Museums, notably the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of art. This seems to me to be a notable correlation. How is it an accident that most summers for the last 60 years have seen american archaeologists digging at Morgantina, and also the museums of the United States acquiring works from the very site. Assigning blame to the archaeologists who dig there, the local officials for protecting the site, or the museum curators who

A detail from one of the 16 pieces of the "Morgantina Silver"
A detail from one of the 16 pieces of the “Morgantina Silver”

acquire this material seems unproductive for this short essay. But visiting the Museum in Aidone and the site of Morgantina I was struck by what a colossal policy failure the looting represents.

Continue reading “We Visited Morgantina and Aidone, they were great”

Sicily says 23 works won’t travel

A depiction of Scylla, one of the objects from the "Morgantina Silver" collection recently repatriated
A depiction of Scylla, one of the objects from the “Morgantina Silver” collection recently repatriated

A good reminder that even when loan agreements are crafted, they don’t always produce a good deal for the source of this art. Sicily’s regional government has declared that 23 works of art should not go abroad for loans unless there are ‘extraordinary circumstances’. The list includes important paintings by Caravaggio, but also some antiquities, many of which have been the subject of recent disputes, including the Morgantina Silver, La dea di Aidone, the Gold Phiale, and other objects.

The reason for the ban? Loans are only going one way. When these objects are loaned abroad there is not sufficient art sent to Sicily. In essence it’s a one-way exchange, at least from Sicily’s point of view. If art is to be a good ambassador, the transfer should go both ways.

Hugh Eakin reports in the NYT that:

In recent years, Sicily, long a victim of looting, has gained back some of the most prized ancient art in the world, including a seven-foot limestone and marble Greek goddess from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But many of the works reside in small regional museums that struggle to draw visitors. According to a report this year in the Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian daily, the museum in Aidone, which houses the silver and the cult statue, received 13,410 visitors in 2012.

A new administration that took power in Sicily in the last year has expressed disappointment with existing loan practices. In 2005, for example, the Sicilian region sent, on its own initiative, three Antonello paintings to the Met for a much publicized exhibition. Now, those three paintings are on the “immovable” list.

“It’s perfectly understandable,” said Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Met who negotiated the museum’s 2006 restitution accord with Italy. “Sicily doesn’t have the depth. If you take away one of these top pieces, you’ve created a big gap.”

  1. Hugh Eakin, Citing Inequity, Sicily Bans Loans of 23 Artworks, N.Y. Times, Nov. 26, 2013.

Getty Announces Return of Morgantina Terracotta Head

The head of Hades, likely looted from
Morgantina, to return to Aidone in 2014

I’ve received a press release from the Getty announcing it will voluntarily return this terracotta head to Italy, specifically Sicily. It depicts the god Hades, and may date to 400-300 B.C.

The Getty press release is slim on details of the acquisition and on what circumstances led to the decision to make a voluntary return. The release states that “joint research” with colleagues in Sicily since 2010 has brought new information to light “suggesting that it was appropriate to return the object”. The evidence is the discovery of four other terracotta fragments near Morgantina which must match this head in some way. The only mention of wrongdoing in the release states that these four fragments were uncovered at “the site of a sanctuary of Demeter, which was clandestinely excavated in the late 1970s.”

The language of the release is careful and I guess serves its purpose. I wonder if there is room here for an analysis of the shape and form that these press releases. I think so. Think about how it differs and resists the words we often use to describe this activity. The words ‘repatriation’, ‘Italy’, ‘looting’, and even ‘crime’,  are not mentioned. But despite the problem I have with the language, it appears from the release as if the Getty is doing cultural justice here. The object was looted and it is returning home soon. But I’m left wondering how many other objects from sites like Morgantina does the Getty retain. The release ties the return to the discovery of physical evidence at the site, and connects this with the object. But what about the contemporary evidence like who bought the object from who and what questions were asked when an object was acquired. We know from investigative reporting like Chasing Aphrodite how little inquiry was made. But this would be so much more direct, cheaper and useful than elaborate scientific tests. My rule of thumb when visiting a museum is, if they don’t tell you about the history of an object, there is very good chance it was looted.

This head will be transferred over to the Archaeological Museum in Aidone, where it will likely be displayed near “la dea di Aidone” previously known as the Getty goddess, returned in 2010. The head first will be a part of a Getty-organized traveling exhibition titled “Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome” which will start at the Getty, stop off at the Clevelend Museum of Art, and culminate in Palermo in June 2014.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Shocking theft… in 1994


Is it any wonder that 7% of the Italian GDP comes from Mafia crime? The Italian city of Catania on Sicily has announced the disappearance of 51 works of art, after a 1995 document regarding their disappearance was recently “rediscovered” and provided to the carabinieri. The works were taken from the art gallery, housed in the Ursino castle pictured here, and were discovered by a new Catania councillor responsible for culture, Silvana Grasso. This is probably not the kind of news Francesco Rutelli wanted on the heels of the discovery of what may be the Lupercale, under Augustine’s palace on the Palatine Hill.

At least one step which should be taken by all museums, and even individuals who own art, is to take a photo of the works. One of the works stolen is a Rembrandt, but there’s no photograph of the work, rendering recovery nearly impossible. If there’s an image, recovery is possible. Ask Peter Crook, who recovered two works by his grandfather GF Wetherbee from the US via the Art Loss Register.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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?

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com