The return of antiquities a blow to Getty

Special to The Times

The J. Paul Getty Museum's agreement Wednesday to return 40 disputed antiquities to Italy brings to a close a cultural and legal fight that has dogged the institution for decades. But it comes at a high price, claiming some of the finest pieces in the Getty's collection.

After months of impasse, the breakthrough came with a flurry of faxes late Tuesday. Of the 46 pieces Italy had demanded, the museum agreed to send back its signature statue of Aphrodite, 10 other masterpieces and more than two dozen other important vases and sculptures.

The objects are expected to be taken off display in the fall, museum officials said, and returned to Italy by the end of the year. The exception is the Aphrodite statue, which will remain at Getty Villa, the Getty's recently renovated antiquities museum near Malibu, until December 2010.

Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, speaking to reporters Wednesday evening at the Parliament, where he was attending to other business, said the deal with the Getty was "an agreement of historic value."

Getty Museum Director Michael Brand also welcomed the accord, which came after two years of often-rocky negotiations.

But he acknowledged the settlement's toll on the Getty's collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities, considered one of the best in the country.

"It will change the status," he said Wednesday. "We're losing great masterpieces. In other cases we're losing smaller, less aesthetically important items, but which might be a linchpin of a particular display."

Many of the objects are now prominently exhibited at the Villa.

The 7 1/2 -foot marble and limestone Aphrodite is the focal point of the Gods and Goddesses gallery on the Villa's ground floor. A statue of Apollo that the museum agreed to return dominates the first-floor Basilica gallery.

The painted sculpture "Griffons Attacking a Fallen Doe" greets visitors as they exit the second-story elevators.

The agreement came after both parties agreed to postpone discussion about the Getty bronze, a 4th-century BC statue of an athlete, whose fate had been a sticking point in the negotiations.

As part of the deal, Italy has agreed to make long-term loans from its museums to the Getty, which Brand said would help plug holes left by the returns.

The accord with the Getty is the Italian government's third and most significant settlement to date with American museums, in what has been a decades-long effort to recover looted objects. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return 21 objects, including its prized Euphronios krater, while Boston's Museum of Fine Art has sent back 13 artifacts.

But the Getty has long been a central focus for Italy.

The museum's youth and wealth made it an ideal target. Unlike its East Coast peers, which built the bulk of their collections in the decades before tough new laws governing antiquity purchases, the Getty came late to the collecting game. The museum didn't receive its enormous endowment until the early 1980s, just as the United States was ratifying an international agreement that, among other things, banned traffic in artifacts that had left Italy without permission after 1939.

Fine antiquities, a passion of the museum's benefactor and namesake, could still be found on the market. But museum officials often turned a blind eye to whether the artifacts had been illegally excavated and exported from their country of origin.

In one 1987 meeting, Harold Williams, then Getty chief executive, and John Walsh, the museum's then-director, grappled with whether they should continue to purchase suspect artifacts with the aim of conserving them and displaying them publicly.

"Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?" Williams asked during that meeting, according to Walsh's notes. Although both men say the question was hypothetical, it captured a dilemma that would dog the Getty for years as it continued to build its collection.

Italy and other countries often objected to the antiquity purchases of U.S. museums, but they lacked hard evidence to prove the objects had been looted.

That changed in 1995, when authorities raided the Swiss warehouse of an Italian middleman and discovered thousands of Polaroid photographs showing objects that had been recently -- and therefore illegally -- excavated and sold.

With that evidence in hand, Italy built a criminal case against the Italian middleman, an American dealer and Marion True, the Getty's former antiquities curator whose name appeared often in correspondence with the other two.

Eventually, Italian authorities said they had traced dozens of looted objects to the Getty and filed a civil suit demanding their return.

As curator, True recommended the purchase of 18 of the 40 objects being returned, and the acquisitions were approved by both the Getty's then-director, Walsh, and its board of trustees. But in 2005, True was the only Getty official charged by Italy with a crime.

The Getty resisted returning the contested objects to Italy, in part, museum officials said, because they feared it would hurt True's defense. The museum changed course last year, after emerging from a scandal-plagued period with new leadership that vowed to fully investigate contested pieces in its collection and, in director Brand's words, "do the right thing."

In 2006, the museum asked True to resign after The Times revealed she had accepted two loans that created possible conflicts of interest she had not disclosed. Soon after, the Getty began negotiating with Italy and Greece, which had also charged True criminally and demanded objects back from the museum. Later that year, the Getty returned four objects to Greece and offered to return 26 of the 46 objects requested by Italy.

Despite their earlier fears that an agreement would hurt True, Getty officials Wednesday expressed hope that the deal would benefit the former curator.

"We have worked all the way through trying to help Marion," Brand said. "One would have reason to hope the agreement will improve things for Marion.... It is entirely in the hands of the Italian authorities."

In a recent letter to Getty officials obtained by The Times, True complained bitterly that the Getty's return of objects involved in her criminal cases had hurt her defense.

Francesco Isolabella, one of True's Italian attorneys, however said the Getty's deal was unlikely to affect True's case because the museum did not admit fault in the agreement announced Wednesday.

Even "if it can be proved that some of the pieces or all of the pieces had an unsure or illegal provenance," he said, "this doesn't at all mean that Mrs. True knew the provenance."

With the Getty deal, many observers believe Italy has completed what it set out to accomplish a decade ago: Reduce the market for illicit antiquities by attacking both the supply and demand.

Earlier this year, the Getty announced it would no longer collect antiquities unless they came with a clear ownership history dating to 1970 -- the year a major international agreement prohibited the traffic in looted art. Citing the Getty's former prominence as a buyer, experts in the debate over cultural patrimony called it a watershed moment, and several other American museums are considering similar policy changes.

"The Italians have made the Getty case a symbol, an emblem," said Luis Monreal, the former head of the Getty's Conservation Institute and an internal critic of the Getty's acquisition of suspect artifacts. "If one of the major clients for antiquities not only has to withdraw from the market but return things, it will put the brakes on the illicit digging in Italy."

jason.felch@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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