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November 20, 2018

How long does it take to achieve restitution of a looted antiquity? In some cases 25 years or more.

29 February 1992          292.AA.10                  Statue of Zeus Enthroned

On October 27, 2018 a first century BCE, marble statue of Zeus, seated on his throne, finally moved to its permanent home, the Archaeological Museum of the Phlegrean Fields in the Castello Aragonese di Baia.  

Like its own lost version of Atlantis, the Campi Flegrei, as the area is known to Italians, is a large, highly active volcanic region, nestled in the northern portion of the Gulf of Naples.  Declared a regional park in 2003, and lying mostly underwater, the archaeological site of Baia, named aptly for its thermal waters, guards treasures from Rome's ancient past, some of which have been transferred to the Archaeological Museum for land lovers to see and appreciate.

A site of profound and priceless beauty, the submerged archaeological park preserves an astounding collection of Roman statues, frozen in liquid time. along with ancient villas, public baths, private grottos and even entire city streets. All of which serve as testimony to the charm of the now submerged city where many of Rome's elite and influential patricians once spent their time relaxing. 

But back to the statue of Zeus and its purchase

Guided by its then antiquities curator, Dr. Marion True, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles purchased the 75-cm-high "Zeus Enthroned" from Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman in 1992.  The Fleischman's in turn had purchased the statue of the Greek god five years earlier in 1987 from British antiquities dealer Robin Symes

Prominent philanthropists of the Metropolitan and other noteworthy American museums, True met the Fleischmans in the late eighties.  At the time, the couple were actively being courted by museums who hoped to purchase all or parts of their substantial personal collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.  As wealthy collectors, they couple had purchased antiquities from both Robin Symes and Giacomo Medici, art dealers readers of this blog should be familiar with.

But the Fleischman's relationship with True mixed business with pleasure and the Getty curator was known to have visited the couple in their East Side New York duplex, which was filled with classical art purchased through these now-disgraced antiquities dealers.  By 1996, True's relationship with the philanthropists was such that Lawrence Fleischman provided a loan towards True's vacation home on the Greek island of Paros.  Conveniently, the loan was arranged days after the Fleischmans finalized their acquisition agreement with the Getty Museum.  In total the museum purchased more than three hundred objects from the couple's collection.  Valued at sixty million dollars, the Getty paid the Fleischmans twenty million and the philanthropists made a tax-deductible donation worth another 40 million, to conclude the deal.

In 2005, Italian Public Prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri brought formal criminal charges against True. The gist of the Italian claims were that the curator  “conspired with Hecht and Medici to supply the Getty with artifacts that had been illegally unearthed and exported from Italy, and that she used the Fleischmans’ collection to ‘launder’ antiquities, giving them a clean bill of provenience before bringing them to the museum”. As the Italian court case got into full swing, True resigned over the Paros home loan and shortly after, in 2006, Barbara Fleischman resigned as a trustee of the Getty Trust.

Over the years numerous Fleischman antiquities, tied to illlicit trafficking have been returned to Italy and coupled with the fact that the enthroned Zeus statue had no documentation of licit export, it became the work of the Italian authorities to prove where the object had come from and to tie the object's origins to Italian territory in order to make a viable claim for its restitution. 

According to a recently published book by Stefano Alessandrini, "Italian cultural diplomacy for the return of assets in exile," the statue's return to Italy in the summer of 2017 was thanks to a combined effort; the joint work of historic researchers, illicit trafficking investigators, judicial magistrates and cultural diplomacy advisors with Italy's cultural ministry.  

Alessandrini states that the request for restitution of a cultural property illicitly removed from the patrimony of a State doesn't constitute a hostile act towards the State to which the work is requested. In fact, Italy seeks to enforce not just the law concerning property, but the right of culture, regulated by numerous international conventions.

Zeus and his relationship with the Phlegrean Fields

Image Credit:
The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal
Volume 21, 1993
Italian researchers believed that the marble Zeus was once part of a collection of cult statues, likely displayed in a lararium, a sacred space designed to hold the images of guardian deities, believed in ancient times, to be the protectors of a villa and the family residing in it. 

From its overall condition, scholars were able to deduce that the object had likely spent a large portion of its lifetime, partially submerged on the seabed, laying on its side, as only half of the object seemed to have been marred by marine encrustations.

But to prove to the J. Paul Getty Museum that their Zeus came from Baia took a bit of random luck.

In December 2012 Italy's Guardia di Finanza stumbled upon a mable fragment from a clandestine excavation during an investigation in Bacoli (Naples).  In examining the piece, hoping to determine its original context, the Italians began to consider whether or not the piece of marble might have once been attached to the corner of the arm of the throne upon which Zeus was resting his laurels. Using open source photos, from the Getty Museum's own website, researchers were able to superimpose their looter fragment onto the edge of the photographed chair.

The result proved to be a compatible match. 

To solidify their visual hypothesis, scientific verification tests were performed in California on 6 March 2014 which determined that the marine encrustations present on the Italian fragment matched those also adhering to the Getty's statue in California. 

Image Credit:
ARCA Screenshot 
Getty Website
accessed 20 November 2018. 
From that point, it took another three years of cultural diplomacy before an agreement for restitution could be solidified between the Italian state and the US museum.  On June 13, 2017 Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying:

"The fragment gave every indication that it was a part of the sculpture we had...It came from the general region of Naples, so it meant this object had come from there."

As a result of museum to State negotiations, the J. Paul Getty Museum formally turned over the Zeus statue to the Italian Consul General for Los Angeles, Antonio Verde, on 14 June 2017 in a restitution ceremony at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

25 years and sometimes longer

Not long ago, the world's museum directors spent their days and careers primarily focused on the custodianship of their institution's art objects.  But to truly attone for the sins of the father, todays directors need to become more proactive global citizens and accept their global (and ethical) responsibilities for the errors of their predecessors.  

While museum and museum associations are becoming more aware of the importance of object provenance, to step up to the plate, their management must become more politically engaged, globally connected and skilled in the arts of arbitration and mediation as it applies to suspect objects like this one. Equally importantly, they must also stop the foot dragging when it comes to acknowledging and correcting the errors of past acquisition judgement, as an entrenched means of delaying the inevitable.

Image Credit: ANSA
Given the known problems with the numerous objects in the Getty collection which were accessioned through the Fleischman acquisition, the tug and pull for ownership of the Zeus statue, eventually settled through mutual (and lengthy) negotiation, should not have taken years to hammer out.

But if you want to see Zeus the next time you are in the Bay of Naples area, to celebrate this one success, he'll be waiting for you, on display at the castle, as part of the exhibition "The visible, the invisible and the sea".   His trip home was a long and complicated one, but at least he is not hurling lightening bolts for how long it took.

By:  Lynda Albertson