From LA to Rome, ancient sculptures get hero's welcome

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From LA to Rome, ancient sculptures get hero's welcome
An exhibit at the Museo dell’Arte Salvata, or Museum for Rescued Art, in Rome on July 14, 2022. Three statues were returned to Italy after the J. Paul Getty Museum discovered they had been looted and will be displayed temporarily in Rome before heading to Taranto, Italy, their permanent home. (Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times.

by Elisabetta Povoledo

ROME.- Italy celebrated the return of three stolen ancient terra-cotta figures, depicting “Orpheus and the Sirens,” in a ceremony Saturday at Rome’s newly inaugurated Museum of Rescued Art.

Until this year, the figures — which date to around 300 B.C. — had been on exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But Italian carabinieri officers in the country’s art theft division uncovered incontrovertible proof last year that the sculptures had been illegally excavated from a site in southern Italy, and the museum agreed to return them.

The head of the carabinieri art theft division, Gen. Roberto Riccardi, said Saturday at the ceremony that two moments from the investigation stood out. The first was in March 2021, when two lieutenants in his squad had come into his office to report that a suspect in an ongoing investigation had come clean. The statues, the suspect had told the officers, had been excavated by tomb robbers in the early 1970s in a town close to Taranto, in Puglia.

The second moment of note, Riccardi said, was exactly a week ago in Los Angeles, “at the Getty Museum, where the work had ended up.” “To see this work being packed up was truly one of the greatest things of my life,” Riccardi said.

“Orpheus and the Sirens” will be on temporary exhibit at the Rome museum, conceived as a showcase for repatriated art, before becoming part of the permanent collection of Taranto’s archaeological museum.

“I can’t help but think that in 10, in 100, in 1,000 years, someone will go to the museum in Taranto will see the statues in their rightful place,” said Riccardi. Art can and should be seen everywhere, he said, “but it has to be done legally.”

In the 53 years since the carabinieri art squad was founded, it has recovered thousands of artifacts stolen from churches, museums, private homes and libraries, and uncovered countless fakes. In the past two decades, many archaeological artifacts have been recovered from museums and private collections worldwide, including some in the United States, often purchased at a time when due diligence was not strictly applied to determine whether their provenance was legal.

This month, the Manhattan’s district attorney’s office seized 27 ancient artifacts valued at more than $13 million from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, asserting that the objects had all been looted.

The New York investigators — along with the carabinieri, prosecutors in Taranto and the U.S. Homeland Security Department — were also involved in the return of the “Orpheus and the Sirens” statues. The three statues were returned to Italy along with 142 looted artifacts that had mostly belonged to billionaire industrialist Michael Steinhardt and the Royal-Athena Galleries in Manhattan.

The life-size terra-cotta figures had been acquired by Getty himself in 1976, Getty museum officials said, and his diary indicated he paid $550,000. Officials said Saturday that the work had been valued at $8 million.

The expertise, knowledge and success of the carabinieri “is something that Italy should be very proud of,” Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, said Saturday.

Stéphane Verger, director of the National Roman Museum, who oversees the new Rome museum, said the figures of “Orpheus and the Sirens” were about to begin “a new life,” starting with their display at the museum, which differed from how they had been shown in Los Angeles.

At the Getty, the three statues had been exhibited side by side. In Rome, the figure of Orpheus has been placed facing the two sirens, to better explain “the sense of the work,” Verger said.

In Greek mythology, the sirens lured sailors to their death with their song. But Orpheus, traveling with a group of Argonauts, helped them safely sail past the sirens by loudly playing his lyre and singing.

“It’s a moment of confrontation,” Verger said. The revised reading of the three figures had become “possible as a result of the recovery,” he said.

Franceschini said it was imperative for looted works of art to return to their place of origin because they are “central to the identity of a territory,” he said. “When they return home, it is a moment of great celebration, of great pride, and it will be the same in Taranto, when they welcome ‘Orpheus and the Sirens’ with open arms.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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