ATHENS—After more than a year of negotiations, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the Greek Ministry of Culture recently announced a landmark agreement whereby the museum will return two important antiquities in its collection to Greece. The objects—a rare gold funerary wreath from the early 4th century B.C. and a ca. 530 B.C. statue of a woman—are regarded by the culture ministry as the most important disputed Greek artworks, after the Elgin Marbles, ever to be exhibited abroad.
According to culture ministry officials, Greece also is amassing evidence against at least three private collectors and museums in Europe and the U.S. it suspects are in possession of disputed works. They declined to identify the targets of the investigations.
Getty Museum director Michael Brand said the decision to return the two artifacts was made after experts at the institution had conducted an internal review of evidence, including information provided by the Greek culture ministry. Brand reported that the agreement, to be formalized soon, would include “plans for future collaboration” with Greece. The accord came just weeks after the museum announced a breakdown in negotiations with Italy over disputed antiquities.
Previously the Getty had returned a Thasian relief and a Boeotian stele from its collection to Greece, following an agreement finalized last August, but the return of the funerary wreath is considered especially important because of the work’s unique provenance. A tangle of golden flowers and foliage trimmed with colored glass, it is believed to have been created for a woman by the same hand that produced a similar work found in the burial tomb of 4th-century B.C. Macedonian emperor Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. Greek authorities believe the wreath was looted from ancient Macedonia, a large part of which now lies in northern Greece.
“The return of these two items is immensely significant—it proves that when you work seriously and responsibly, you get results,” Greek culture minister Georgios Voulgarakis commented at a press conference in Athens. “The Getty Museum behaved in an extremely rational way,” he noted, adding that the return of artifacts “was not an easy procedure, as there had been no precedent, and our talks included both legal and political aspects.”
Nikolas Zirganos, a journalist specializing in antiquities theft whom the culture ministry had appointed in August to investigate the matter, said that evidence supporting the claim included testimony from a Greek painter based in Germany who had acted as a middleman between the traffickers and Marion True, the Getty’s former antiquities curator. There also were photographs of the two artifacts, “mangled and dirty and clearly taken by looters,” he said.
The Getty acquired the wreath in 1993 for $1.15 million from Christoph Leon, an Austrian art dealer based in Switzerland, culture ministry officials report. According to Zirganos, the payment “was made into a bank account that Greek police later discovered was used by Greek looters.” Through testimony given by the Greek middleman, the authorities in Athens were able to trace the movements of the funerary wreath as it changed hands in Greece, Germany and Switzerland before finally ending up at the Getty, he said.
In the case of the statue of a clothed young woman (kore), photos uncovered by Italian authorities in raids on warehouses in Italy and Switzerland depicted the work covered in dirt and with fresh fractures—tell-tale signs of illegal excavation.
Other photos showed the kore in “a workshop in Geneva before it was restored,” Zirganos affirmed. The Getty acquired the marble statue in 1993 for $3 million from London dealer Robin Symes, who has been under investigation by Italian prosecutors for his dealings with True.
True Faces New Charges
Currently on trial in Italy, allegedly for trafficking in antiquities, True recently was charged by Greek authorities in connection with the wreath as well. The new charge came before the latest agreement between Greece and the Getty. True will be called to testify on the matter sometime this year.
The Getty’s Brand told ARTnewsletter he was assured that any criminal proceedings against True in Greece would be kept separate from negotiations over the disputed objects.
Furthermore, says Harry Stang, True’s Los Angeles-based attorney, “the Getty has confirmed that the decision to return the objects does not reflect a judgment by the Getty of culpability on the part of Dr. True.” Stang suggests that, “in many cases, information about the circumstances under which the objects were acquired came long after the purchases were made.”
In a recent letter addressed to Brand; Deborah Marrow, the acting president and CEO of the Getty Trust; and Ron Hartwig, vice president of communications for the trust, True accused the institution of not doing enough to defend her reputation or explain the work she did for the museum.
“The calculated silence of the Getty Trust . . . on the subject of my indictments has been acknowledged universally, especially in the archaeological counties, as a tacit acceptance of my guilt,” True wrote.
Hartwig told ARTnewsletter that each recipient of the letter had responded with a note indicating support, adding, “We continue to believe that based on the evidence we’ve seen, Marion True should be exonerated of the charges she is facing.”
Greek culture minister Voulgarakis said that in order to shore up defenses against the trafficking of artifacts, the ministry is planning to collaborate with Italy and Cyprus to form a common European policy on the illegal antiquities trade. He noted that the Greek and Italian governments have agreed to sign an accord of cooperation early this year.
“Eighty percent of looted antiquities belong to Greece or Italy,” Voulgarakis declared, adding that the two countries might unite in placing bids to recover artifacts believed to have been stolen from their soil. In addition, he said, the Italian art-theft squad will specially train Greek policemen to combat antiquities smuggling.
Greece also will enter a bilateral accord with the U.S. to protect cultural property, Voulgarakis said. The agreement, in the form of a memorandum of cooperation endorsing the 1970 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) convention on the protection of cultural heritage, is expected to be signed by the end of February, he added. Italy recently reached a similar accord with Switzerland.
“I have made the return of all looted antiquities an absolute priority,” Voulgarakis said.“We don’t want to empty the museums of the world, but whatever has been stolen and rightfully belongs to Greece—and there is evidence that it has been illegally excavated and trafficked—will be claimed.”