Stolen Aphrodite Returns

The Getty museum's ancient statue of the Greek love goddess is headed back home to Italy after a protracted international battle involving tomb-raiding art smugglers.

12.11.10 8:37 PM ET

Aphrodite may be the Greek goddess of love and sensual desire, but for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, she has come to symbolize the nasty underworld of an illicit antiquities trade that has stained the museum’s image for decades. Because the Getty’s colossal statue of Aphrodite has no traceable provenance, it has been shrouded in controversy since the day she was delivered in a 1,300-pound packing crate in 1987. Despite warnings from the museum’s chief conservationist, Luis Monreal, it was purchased for a record price—and next week, it will be returned to Italy after a lengthy tug-of-war involving trials of tomb raiders and international wrangling.

Twenty-three years ago, Monreal suspected immediately that this Aphrodite, which dated back to the 5th century B.C., had not been part of a private Swiss collection, as the museum’s then-curator, Marion True, said. True’s London art dealer, Robin Symes, had promised her that the Italian statue was part of a supermarket magnate’s collection, and that it had been acquired long before 1939, the cutoff date after which Italy no longer allowed ancient artifacts to be removed without government approval. Monreal, who is now the director of Aga Kahn Trust for Culture in Geneva, confirmed to The Daily Beast that he was concerned because of dirt in the folds of her sculpted tunic. To him, that subtle clue meant that the statue had not been discovered in a private warehouse, as True said. The dirt, along with what Monreal knew were fresh fractures, were telltale signs that tomb raiders, not archeologists, had recently plucked this statue out of a centuries-old grave.

Aphrodite’s sale took a year to confirm. While the museum and art dealer argued over whether the statute was truly based on Aphrodite or on some other Greek love goddess, Monreal insisted that the real question was whether it was part of an illicit racket whereby thousands of Italy’s ancient artifacts were smuggled out of the country via a top-dollar black market. At the time, statues were hidden in coffins and in cargo crates, escaping border controls. It was before the age of airline terrorism, so smaller items were easily carried out by hand or stuffed in carry-on bags, smuggled out by high-dollar runners. One famous vase smuggled and later sold to the Met even traveled in a first-class TWA seat.

There may have been nothing stopping tomb raiders from smuggling their wares out of the country, but museum policies were supposed to require that all acquisitions of ancient artifacts included proof of when and under what circumstances they left Italy. But like many others, Aphrodite had no documents proving that it had ever been legally exported out of Italy; in fact, there was no record of its existence anywhere. Monreal pleaded with the Getty not to finalize the purchase of the 7.5-foot statue unless they at least tested the pollen in the soil, which would help identify both the location and the date it was unearthed. His warning was ignored, and the Getty purchased the statue for a record $18 million, or $33.3 million in today’s dollars. Aphrodite soon became the showpiece of the museum’s ancient art collection, but its sketchy past haunted the Getty.

Now, after a cultural tug-of-war and a lengthy trial in Rome, Aphrodite is finally going home to Sicily. It is on display until Sunday at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, and then it will be carefully dissected and shipped back to Italy along with a seismic-proof stand the Getty built just for it. It will be restored and finally catalogued with the Italian culture ministry and then, next March, curators at the archeology museum in the tiny village of Aidone, near Morgantina, Sicily, will inaugurate a new section of the museum erected just for its return. Last week, the same Sicilian museum hailed the return of 16 Hellenistic-era silver artifacts returned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York following their own accord with the government of Italy after it was determined that they, too, were illicit artifacts. The Met has returned 20 artifacts since 2006.

When Hecht, now 91, was arrested, he was in the process of writing a colorful memoir that read like a “how to smuggle art” manual.

Italy may never have reacquired these stolen treasures if not for a lengthy trial that served as a warning to all museums that bought art under questionable circumstances. In 2004, the country indicted True and her longtime art collector and associate Robert Hecht, an American residing in Paris. When Hecht, now 91, was arrested, he was in the process of writing a colorful memoir that read like a “how to smuggle art” manual and was confiscated and used by Rome prosecutor Paolo Ferri to build a case against Hecht and True. Hecht, who said his book was fiction, even though it contained Polaroid prints of artifacts still in their muddy graves and phone numbers of tomb raiders, dealt stolen loot along with Italian smuggling kingpin Giacomo Medici through London collector Symes, who sold True the Aphrodite and who served seven months of a two-year prison sentence for these crimes in 2005. Medici was given a 10-year sentence for dealing in stolen artifacts. He is still appealing that conviction. Hecht, Medici, and Symes are well-known in the ancient artifact trade, and have supplied almost every major British and American museum and many private collectors with ancient Italian artifacts. When Hecht and True went on trial in 2004 in Rome, and Symes was convicted in 2005, those museums and private collectors with these names on their purchase orders started coughing up their questionable treasures.

The statue of Aphrodite is the last of 40 contested artifacts that Italy has fought long and hard to reclaim from the Getty, and finally giving it up is a major concession from the museum. The rest of the Getty artifacts—including a Euphronius krater dating back to 480 B.C., Greek silverware, and a fragment of a 1st-century B.C. fresco of Hercules— have been returned piece by piece, each with great ceremony in Italy. They are often displayed in Rome’s national museums before making their way to their points of origin. But Aphrodite was different. The Getty offered to share ownership with Italy, but the Italians refused. In the end, the Getty agreed to send it home. The deal included a promise that Italy will lend major works to the Getty and that the Getty never has to admit it knowingly dealt in stolen works.

True’s trial is now archived; coincidentally, the statute of limitations has just run out as Aphrodite makes its way home. Hecht is still on trial, but the statue of limitations on his crimes will run out next summer, just after Aphrodite makes its Sicilian debut. Many of the artifacts that have made their way back from U.S. museums will be housed in small museums like the one in Aidone, which gets just a few hundred visitors each year. Some pieces will end up in warehouses—after all, it’s not as if Italy doesn’t already have an embarrassment of art riches. For the Italian government, which views the return of Aphrodite and all of the artifacts as a major achievement, the fact that these historic treasures will be enjoyed by only a fraction of the people who saw them at the Getty and the Met means nothing. “It’s not about that,” True and Hecht’s former Rome prosecutor, Paolo Ferri, told The Daily Beast. “It is the principle—and the provenance.”

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.