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Getty Villa says farewell to Cult Statue of a Goddess as it returns to Sicily

The Getty Villa’s Cult Statue of a Goddess is returning to Sicily, where it is thought to have been illegally excavated in the 1970s. This decision to return the statue follows earlier refusals when the museum previously insisted that it had acted in good faith when purchasing the sculpture. This is Sicily’s second successful artefact restitution in recent weeks, following the Morgantina Silver returned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum [1].

Various other artefacts (currently the sculpture of the Agrigento Youth) are being loaned to the Getty by Italy in return for the ongoing restitution programme. This is a similar arrangement to the offer that has previously been put forward by Greece to the British Museum as a proposal to enable the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.

LA Times [2]

Getty Villa prepares to say farewell to its goddess
The museum welcomes the culture minister of Sicily, where the ancient sculpture will return, ending decades of contention over looted artworks.
By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
December 7, 2010

To look at her — 71/2 feet tall atop her earthquake-resistant pedestal, her face serene, her limestone robes rippling in an unfelt wind — is not just to appreciate a pinnacle of ancient Greek statuary, but to experience a semblance of how divinity must have felt to awestruck pagans.

And now the great goddess, once described as “the greatest piece of classical sculpture in … any country outside of Greece and Great Britain,” not to mention the most costly antiquity the J. Paul Getty Trust ever acquired, is about to depart.

Sunday is the last day that “Cult Statue of a Goddess” will be on view at the Getty Villa near Malibu. She then will be separated into her connecting parts, packed and flown in January to Sicily, where she is believed to have been illegally dug from the ground in the late 1970s. In late March, she’ll be unveiled in the archaeological museum at Aidone, where government officials hope she becomes a magnet for tourism, along with other finds from the nearby ancient digsite of Morgantina.

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On Monday, Sebastiano Missineo, the culture minister of Sicily, was at the Getty Villa to see the goddess, whose Getty-designed seismic cushioning will make the journey with her and secure her in her new home. Accompanied by an entourage of media and Getty officials, Missineo first stopped to look at an example of the silver lining of the controversial episode that ends with the return of the “cult statue,” the last of the 40 ancient artworks the Getty agreed in 2007 to send back to Italy because of the questionable legality of how they were acquired.

“The Agrigento Youth,” a marble masterpiece believed to be several decades older than the goddess, is on loan from a Sicilian museum through April 19. It’s the latest in a series of ancient pieces loaned under a continuing program that rose out of the agreement to repatriate the 40 looted works.

Speaking through an interpreter, Missineo said he is grateful that the accord is not only about the Getty yielding the cult statue and other works, but involves a relationship with the L.A. museum that includes tapping Getty expertise in conserving and mounting ancient art. In some cases, the prize pieces coming to the Villa on loan are worked on by Getty conservators, and return with new seismic mountings that are important in quake-vulnerable Sicily.

“We have a very important cultural heritage, but we need to learn new skills,” Missineo said.

Karol Wight, the Getty’s chief antiquities curator, said Zeus will be promoted to top star of the “Gods and Goddesses” gallery where the cult statue holds sway. Plans call for reconfiguring the room, with the throned ruler of the gods, a Roman statue from the 1st century AD, moving to the center of the gallery from its current spot along a wall.

There, on Monday, a group of sixth and eighth graders from Renaissance Arts Academy, a public charter school, found themselves in the last wave of Angelenos to see the goddess.

“She’s very intricate. All the folds — that’s not exactly easy,” said Darby Pak. Matthew Norris, a tall sixth grader, said the students had found out that this wasn’t just art-appreciation as usual, but an occasion, a last-chance viewing of an ancient visitor. “We’re pretty lucky,” he said. “It’s such an honor.”

While the cult statue commonly has been referred to as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, there are other possibilities. Malcolm Bell III, a leading expert on ancient Sicilian art, said in a 2007 presentation at the Getty that her matronly garb, including a cloak broken off at the shoulder that originally may have extended over her head like a bridal veil, points to Zeus’ wife, Hera, the goddess of marriage.

The statue was purchased for $18 million ($33.3 million today). When the Getty announced its arrival in July 1988, it was a cause for celebration. “It’s unique in the world,” said Marion True, then the museum’s chief curator of antiquities. No other acrolithic sculpture is nearly intact. The term describes statues in which marble heads and extremities are attached to torsos made from other materials, in this case limestone. Marble is scarce in Sicily, so substitutes had to be used.

But the furor over the goddess’ legality began within days of its unveiling, when Italian authorities opened an investigation into rumors that it was looted in the late 1970s from Morgantina, a poorly protected archaeological site in eastern Sicily.

The Getty initially parried criticism by saying it had acted in good faith; before buying the statue from a British dealer, museum officials said, they had checked with government authorities to make sure the goddess, previously unknown to archeologists and antiquities experts, was not being sought as stolen goods.

But times changed in the museum world. Under pressure from Italy, Greece, Egypt and other countries with buried ancient art — and from archaeologists who believe ancient finds are best seen and studied where they originally stood — the old practices of ignoring caution signs while shopping for treasures became increasingly unacceptable.

In 2006, the Getty adopted strict new rules for acquiring antiquities. In August 2007, it agreed to return the 40 looted artworks to Italy. At first, the museum had tried to hold onto “Cult Statue of a Goddess,” proposing joint ownership with Italy while further investigation went forward to determine whether she in fact had been dug from Morgantina. The Italians refused.

The Getty eventually capitulated after Italy’s culture minister threatened a national embargo on art loans to the Getty and an end to cooperation on Getty research and conservation projects.

One last masterpiece remains contested: In February, an Italian judge ordered the seizure of the “Getty Bronze,” an uncommonly intact statue of a youth. The museum, which bought it in 1977 for $14 million in today’s dollars, has appealed, arguing it is not Italian property because it was fished out of international waters.