December 12, 2006

Getty expected to return gold wreath to Greece

Posted at 2:40 pm in Greece Archaeology, Similar cases

Yet another disputed artefact from the Getty now looks set to be returned to its rightful owners. While the Getty continues to try & belatedly put its house in order though, the British Museum continues to hide behind the anti-deaccessioning clauses of the British Museum Act rater than actually dealing with the various similar issues relating to their own collection.

New York Times

Getty Museum Is Expected to Return Gold Wreath to Greece
Published: December 11, 2006

After nearly a year of negotiations, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has agreed in principle to return a rare fourth-century B.C. gold funerary wreath to Greece that cultural officials there contend was illegally removed from Greek soil, an expert briefed on the talks said Sunday.

The museum, which bought the artifact in 1993, reached its decision in recent days after new information came to light about the wreath’s likely origin, the expert added. He said he was speaking on condition of anonymity because of an agreement on both sides not to speak with the news media until an announcement could be made.

Reached late yesterday, an official at the Greek Culture Ministry in Athens said that a “very positive development” regarding the talks with the Getty would be made Monday at a news conference at noon Athens time, or 5 a.m. New York time. She declined to say whether a decision had been made on returning the wreath.

Ron Hartwig, a Getty spokesman, declined to comment.

The anticipated accord would come after weeks of growing scrutiny of the museum’s acquisition of the wreath, to which Greece first sought claim in the late 1990s. In November, Greek prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation of Marion True, the former antiquities curator at the Getty, focusing on her involvement in the purchase.

For years the precise site of the wreath’s excavation had been unclear. But this month Greek officials sent the Getty a new dossier of evidence, including documents and photographs, to support their claim that it was found in Greece.

The Greek police say they now have evidence that the funerary wreath was dug up by a farmer in 1990 near Serres, in northern Greece, and passed on to the art market through Germany and Switzerland before being sold to the Getty in 1993.

A Getty Museum catalog identifies the delicate floral decorations on the wreath as “plants that grow profusely in Northern Greece,” suggesting it may have been created in the region, although such information alone cannot determine where and when it was excavated in modern times.

It remains unclear how a resolution of the claim for the wreath could affect the Greek legal investigation of several people involved in the sale of the wreath, including Ms. True, the former Getty curator.

In an interview last week in New York, the Greek culture minister, Georgios A. Voulgarakis, stressed that the Greek judiciary is independent from the government, and that his talks with the Getty and other museums did not hinge on any legal proceedings in progress. Nevertheless, he said that once the negotiations are resolved, “we can discuss everything.”

It is also unclear whether the new accord will address a sixth-century B.C. marble kore, or statue of a young woman, acquired by the Getty that Greece has also claimed. That object is believed to have been made on Paros, a Greek island, but Greece’s request for its return had been complicated by its appearance on a separate list of 52 objects that Italy asked back from the Getty in January.

(In November the Getty unilaterally decided to return 26 of the 52 objects to Italy after talks between the two sides broke down.)

In recent weeks Italian officials have indicated that they are prepared to drop their competing claim for the kore. More generally, Mr. Voulgarakis said in the interview, Greece and Italy now plan to forge a formal alliance to seek the return of ancient artifacts from museums in the United States and Europe.

That pact, which he said he expected to complete early next year, would cement recent collaboration between the countries as both pursue increasingly muscular campaigns to retrieve prized Greek and Roman antiquities.

Outlining that strategy in the interview last week, Mr. Voulgarakis said his country wanted to benefit from the Italians’ growing expertise in tracking antiquities and mixing carrot-and-stick diplomacy with criminal prosecutions.

“The Italians are very well organized very, very well organized,” Mr. Voulgarakis said. “Every country has its own policy and priorities, but we can help each other.”

Ionnis Diotis, a Greek prosecutor who has worked on the Getty investigation, said that after discussions with Getty lawyers in the spring, he and the head of Greece’s art-theft police went to Italy to seek help in investigating the wreath and other antiquities issues. He said he had weighed the possibility of investigating Getty board trustees who reviewed the purchase of the wreath and other objects because final decisions on acquisitions rest with the board.

For countries seeking the repatriation of antiquities in foreign collections and museums, the threat of legal action has become a crucial tool. In 2005 Italy put Ms. True on trial on charges of conspiring to import looted artifacts, and in recent weeks Italian officials have made it clear that the outcome of her ongoing trial in Rome could depend partly on the Getty’s willingness to meet the Culture Ministry’s demands.

The accord between Italy and Greece outlined by Mr. Voulgarakis would include provisions for enforcement and cultural diplomacy. Because of their common interests and shared classical heritage, he said, the two countries might pursue some claims jointly, and then determine which objects should go to which country.

In recent weeks, Italian officials have acknowledged sharing information with their Greek counterparts and have indicated that they plan to extend the collaboration.

Mr. Voulgarakis said he hoped to follow Italy’s strategy of pressing art-market countries like the United States for bilateral import bans of classical archaeological material. He also said he would open an office in the Greek Culture Ministry to compile an inventory of Greek antiquities in foreign collections and museums.

Mr. Voulgarakis described the accord with Italy as part of a broader effort to repatriate antiquities of “national importance.” Above all, he said, Greece is strengthening its campaign to win back the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum in preparation for next year’s inauguration of an Acropolis museum that has been specially designed to house the marble works with other Parthenon sculptures. The marbles, sent to Britain by the diplomatic emissary Lord Elgin two centuries ago, include much of the Parthenon frieze and other statuary.

“We do not intend to empty museums around the globe, but the Parthenon frieze has to be reunified, otherwise it has no historical value,” Mr. Voulgarakis said in the interview.

For years the British Museum has firmly and repeatedly rebuffed Greek demands for the return of the marbles, which were removed well before the modern Greek state existed. In the 1980s, Mr. Voulgarakis acknowledged, it was possible to argue that the sculptures were better housed in the British Museum than at the original site in Athens, where remaining parts of the frieze suffered from corrosive air pollution.

But international support for returning the marbles to Greece has grown, Mr. Voulgarakis said, and the new Acropolis museum would allow all surviving Parthenon sculptures to be reunited and protected in situ in what he called “one of the most advanced archaeological museums in the world.”

Toward this goal, Mr. Voulgarakis is also trying to retrieve 18 Parthenon fragments in the collections of other European institutions, including the National Museum in Copenhagen, the Vatican Museums in Rome and the Louvre in Paris. In September, the University of Heidelberg returned a small fragment, and he said that discussions were progressing with several other museums, although he declined to name them. Many of these pieces were also removed from Greece in the early 19th century or even earlier.

Mr. Voulgarakis likened the Elgin Marbles’ situation to the Mona Lisa’s being cut up into pieces. “Imagine if you have the face in Sweden, one hand in the United States, the breasts in Japan, and the other hand in Italy,” he said.

Invoking the Mona Lisa’s Italian title, he said, “What kind of Gioconda is that?”

He did not mention that the Mona Lisa fully intact is in France, not in Italy, where it was originally created centuries ago.

Hugh Eakin reported from New York and Anthee Carassava from Athens.

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