The Getty Trust’s Francavilla Marittima Project

The J. Paul Getty Museum announced today that a second volume of research will be published from the Francavilla Marittima project. The project brings together researchers and scholars from Italy, Switzerland, and the Getty. As today’s press release states, “this partnership, designed to discover information about the origins of objects from antiquity, demonstrates the good that can come from collaborative international scientific research based solely on the pursuit of knowledge”.

This project was started in 1993 by Marion True, after a Dutch archaeologist named Marianne Kleibrink notified true that many of the vases in the Getty’s collection came from a Greek colony in southern Italy knowns as Francavilla Marittima. It seems most of these vases and terracottas were donated to the Getty in the 1970’s.

In response, True and the Getty undertook this research initiative, and also repatriated many of the objects to Italy. And so they should have, because we don’t know who donated the terracottas, but it seems possible that many of the vases and fragments were illicitly excavated or illegally exported.

This is a welcome research initiative, and is good in the sense that it is attempting to learn more about these vases. However, it’s a bit like closing the proverbial barn door after the horse has escaped. If these terracottas had been professionally excavated, a great deal more would have been known about them. Of course, because the objects were donated, the Getty didn’t really play a part in that illicit trade. Today’s move seems a clear move to improve the public image of its former curator Marion True, and highlight its research initiatives. I’m only a novice at archaeological study, and I do not know about the quality of this research. If any archaeologists have an opinion on the scholarly merit of what has been learned from the Francavilla Marittima project, please post your thoughts in the comments section.

As Michael Brand’s statement today made clear, “The goal of this project from the start was to repatriate the objects to Italy following a period of research and documentation and I’m pleased we played a part in this important international effort”. Research initiatives like this one are a welcome step, but are by no means a substitution for a professional excavation. I would like to see more of a collaborative effort between the antiquities market and archaeologists which uses the purchase price an antiquity fetches at an auction to fund excavations in source countries. There are a number of difficult barriers in erecting such a system, but it seems the best chance to forge a pragmatic compromise and reduce the illicit trade.

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