Getty brings back three important sculptures to Italy

A beautifully preserved group of three life-size terracotta figures dating to 300 BC. Seized by Manhattan prosecutors from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, it is being shipped back to Italy after the museum agreed it was illegally excavated, museum and law enforcement officials said.

The three objects were seized in April as part of investigations into an accused Italian antiques smuggler, Gianfranco Becchina, 83, who was convicted of receiving antiques stolen from Greece, officials said. The warrant listed its current value at $8 million. The Getty Museum announced the return on Thursday.

“Once we informed the museum of the investigation and the evidence we had, they cooperated fully,” said Matthew Bogdanos, the district attorney’s chief of antiquities. Mr Bogdanos said his office was able to cross state lines with the help of federal homeland security officers because the investigation was his purview.

Getty director Timothy Potts said in an interview on Friday that the removal of the group known as “Orpheus and the Sirens” was a hard blow. “It is a very important example of ancient art and a loss for our collection and our visitors,” he said, “but there is clear evidence that it was illegally excavated, so there was nothing to do but bring it back to Italy.”

Massimo Osanna, director general for museums at Italy’s culture ministry, said talks with Getty about the return of Orpheus and the Sirens began last February when museum officials visited Rome. The subsequent seizure order “accelerated the situation,” he said.

The confiscation and return will deprive the Getty Villa Museum of one of its signature pieces, which held pride of place near the museum’s entrance. The Getty Villa Museum, a large annex to the main Los Angeles museum built to replicate a luxurious Roman country house, is filled with Greco-Roman antiquities.

In 2001, Becchina was briefly arrested in Italy and charged with receiving stolen goods, illegally exporting goods and conspiring to trade in goods. In 2011, after a long legal battle, the charges were dropped due to the statute of limitations. But the judge in the case said he had to hand over thousands of stolen ancient Roman artifacts because they were clearly looted by tomb robbers.

The three figures were acquired by Getty himself in 1976, museum officials said, and they cited Getty’s diary entry for the day in which the purchase price was $550,000. The extreme fragility of Orpheus and the Sirens requires specially tailored equipment and procedures, the museum says.

The museum said it has removed the objects from public view and will send them to Rome in September. According to Getty’s website, the grouping was likely brightly painted and used to decorate a grave. Officials said it will be displayed in Rome’s newly opened Museum of Rescued Art before finding a permanent home in Taranto, in Puglia.

Osanna added that there is still disagreement with the Getty over a statue, Victorious Youth, also known as the Getty Bronze, which has been the subject of disputes between the museum and Italy for decades. “We’re still hoping for an agreement,” he said.

Italian authorities say the bronze was smuggled out of Italy without proper export papers and accuse the museum of willful negligence in conducting due diligence prior to purchase.

The Getty counters that it was actually a Greek statue that was discovered in international waters hundreds of years after it was made, so it has only a fleeting connection to Italy. The museum has said claims of bringing it back are unfounded.

Like other museums, the Getty has returned numerous items to Italy in recent years after evidence emerged that they had been trafficked. In 2007, for example, the museum handed over 40 items from its antiquities collection after what it said was a “long and complicated negotiation” with Italian officials.

The Antiquities Trafficking Unit itself returned 142 items to Italy last month, most of which had belonged to billionaire industrialist Michael H. Steinhardt and the Royal-Athena Galleries in Manhattan. Officials said many of the items confiscated last year passed through Becchina’s hands.

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