Bringing home the silver

WHILE THEIR OLYMPIC athletes go for the gold in Turin, Italian authorities hope to land some highly coveted silver and terra cotta in the United States. The bounty -- five pieces of stoneware and 15 pieces of silver, each at least 2,300 years old -- is being held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

But the Met concedes that the Hellenistic treasures were dug up by tomb raiders in Italy in the 1970s and ‘80s and spirited out of the country, violating a 1939 Italian law asserting ownership over all antiquities there. The Met is expected to finalize a deal soon that would give Italy title to the works in exchange for the museum being loaned pieces of comparable value.

This concession wasn’t entirely voluntary. The Met’s hand was forced by Italian prosecutors, who found damning evidence when they raided a Roman antiquities dealer. That dealer, it turns out, is a key figure in the prosecution of former Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True, who was ushered out the door last year in an unrelated dispute.

Still, there’s something notable and welcome in the positions taken by the two sides. After insisting for years that it would not return items based on anything less than “irrefutable proof,” the Met settled for a “preponderance” of evidence showing the items had been looted. That’s the standard a U.S. jury would use if the Met were sued.


Meanwhile, Italian authorities say they’ll offer the same deal to other museums that have suspect artifacts: Turn over the works in exchange for valuable long-term loaners. They had already committed to making antiquities available to museums as part of a pact with U.S. officials, who pledged to crack down on the importation of Italian artifacts.

If done right, a loan program would fulfill one of the main goals for museums that get into the murky business of collecting antiquities: letting the public see great works from lost cultures. And by supplying groups of objects from an entire neighborhood or community, rather than just 15 silver items found under the floorboards of some excavated house in Sicily, a loan program could do a much better job of reanimating the lives that produced them.

Closer to home, the Getty has in recent years done more than other major institutions to dry up the market for looted antiquities, and many in the field credit True for demanding more proof of legitimacy. The Getty returned three artifacts last year, and it is talking with Italian authorities about at least 42 more pieces in its collection. The Met, on the other hand, was known within the art world for taking a hard line against allegations that items in its collection had illegal origins. That’s why the Met’s move is expected to ripple through the art world, potentially triggering a long-overdue wave of reform.