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August 12, 2022

Raffaele Monticelli's connection to Bank Leu A.G. and to the Getty Villa's "Seated Musician and Sirens" AKA Orpheus and the Sirens

In a tightly worded announcement made on 11 August 2022 the J. Paul Getty Museum revealed that it will finally relinquish its nearly-lifesize terracotta sculptural group "Seated Musician and Sirens" to the Italian authorities "after evidence persuaded the museum that the statues had been illegally excavated."  In elaborating on the three sculptures' return, directors Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle of the J. Paul Getty stated "Thanks to information provided by Matthew Bogdanos and the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office indicating the illegal excavation of Orpheus and the Sirens, we determined that these objects should be returned." 

While this announcement seemed like breaking news across the English speaking world, making several major news publications, it's not to those living and working on Italian cultural heritage losses. Many of those who have been following the tug of war between Italy and the Getty museum for more than a decade have felt that these objects, coming from the Magna Graecia colony of Taranto, should have already come home, and are curious as to what confirmatory evidence the New York authorities now have about these objects' illicit past and those who handled them which finally resulted in the museum's sudden release of their prized grouping. 

As backstory, the seated poet and his two standing sirens were confiscated in April 2022 as part of New York's investigation into an accused Italian antiquities smuggler. Originally brightly painted, this large-scale sculptural ensemble was purchased by John Paul Getty Sr.,  the founder of Getty Oil Company, in the spring of 1976 with no known provenance aside attesting to its collecting history, aside from the name of the Swiss bank seller.

Orpheus, seated on his chair, with footstool, and slab, is missing part of his musical instrument (probably a plektron) and the middle finger of the left hand.  Reassembled from a number of fragments prior to its acquisition by the Getty, his legs, head and other sections appear to have been reconsolidated, leaving him mostly intact.  Missing sections were also filled in, and smoothed over, with obscuring encrustations added on the body and the head, perhaps to conceal break lines which can sometimes be indicative of illegal excavation. 

Like with the sculpture of the poet, both of the sirens in this grouping also show signs of having been reconstructed from multiple fragments.  On the first siren, gaps can be seen in her short chiton and in her right claw.  For the second, most of the curls and the little finger of her right hand have been broken off the statue at some point in her transport out of Italy. 

But what did John Paul Getty Sr. have to say about their circulation on the art market and his collecting habits as he filled his new museum?

Prior to his death, and in ever declining health despite being deeply involved in the construction and opening of the Getty Villa,  Getty made multiple final acquisitions for his museum, with little attention towards the provenance and via several suspect brokers of ancient art who repeatedly have been accused of  trafficking in antiquities.  These purchases are outlined in his March 6, 1976 diary entry and include:  

  • a 530 BCE Archaic marble head from Heinz Herzer worth 56,000 DM (Object Number: 76.AA.6);
  • a Greek Attic Panatheniac Amphora Attributed to the Nichomachos Group from Nicolas Koutoulakis worth 70,000 USD (Object Number: 76.AE.5.a);
  • a Statue of Togatus from Bank Leu, A.G. for 61,000 SF;
  • a 180 BCE Hellenic Marble Head from Muhammed Yoganah for 50,000 USD;
  • a 100–250 CE Toman silver statuette of Venus from Mathias Komor for $7500 (Object Number:76.AM.4);
  • a 210 CE Front of a Sarcophagus with the Myth of Endymion from Robin Symes for 30,000 GBP (Object Number: 76.AA.8.b);  
and finally, 
  • the group of 3 statues made in Tarentum at the end of the 4th century BCE for $550,000 from Bank Leu, A.G. (Object Numbers: 76.AD.11.1, 76.AD.11.2 and 76.AD.11.3).
Getty wrote in his dairy that all of the artefacts above, had been purchased on the recommendation of Jiří Frel, the Getty's Czech-American archaeologist.  Frel, was the J. Paul Getty Museum's first Curator of Antiquities would later be implicated in a number of controversies that tarnished the reputation of the museum.  Based on suspicions of malpractice, he was placed on paid leave from the Getty in 1984 and was allowed to quietly resign in 1986.  

After leaving the California museum, Frel, served as a consultant for wealthy European collectors, taught classes, and shuttled between residences in Budapest and Italy. At one point he even registered himself as being domiciled in Sicily, setting his residence in the palazzo of the problematic antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina in Castelvetrano.

Speaking with Italian journalists, New York prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office's Antiquities Trafficking Unit stated that the J. Paul Getty Museum had cooperated with the DANY regarding these pieces after their seizure, but underscored that their seemingly impromptu restitution is still part of an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the Manhattan office in collaboration with the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale.  Bogdanos added that the museum's repatriation statement, released by the Getty, "left half of the truth out" and by that one can surmise he is referring to their seizure the previous April. 

Speaking further, Bogdanos added that this multi-year investigation started with the exploration of suspect market actors his team has spent years investigating.  The prosecutor underscored that this sculpture group's illegal removal from Italy, and export to the United States via Switzerland, involved a well known trafficking network which is known to have operated in Italy for decades.  

One member of this network who has now been publicly identified is Raffaele Monticelli, the retired elementary teacher, who gave up teaching for the more lucrative roll of middle man broker of illicit antiquities.  Monticelli has been arrested several times, and connected to multiple trafficking networks for decades.  Most recently, in late 2021, he was arrested by the Dutch authorities after having carried a looted helmet to Delft for restoration.

If we take a look at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office's Michael Steinhardt statement of facts, we can also determine, on page 36, that Raffaele Monticelli also had a relationship with Leo Mildenberg, the late Swiss numismatist for the Swiss private Bank Leu A.G., who is known to have brokered sales both for Raffaele Monticelli and for Gianfranco Becchina. 

How long has this restitution taken? 

The sculptural group first appeared as a grouping of high concern in the list of identified finds drawn up by Italy's Ministry of Culture at the beginning of 2006.  

The Taranto provenance, in addition to appearing in the digital record compiled by the J. Paul Museum, is supported by Italian scholars Pietro Giovanni Guzzo and Angelo Bottini who published the grouping purchased by the Getty in 1976. 

Furthermore, an article, published in the "Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno" dated 30 November 2006, and republished in the web magazine "patrimoniosos" stated "the comparisons with the monumental groups in terracotta found in central and southern Italy and the representations we have on the ceramic finds of Apulian production, which document the presence of decorative terracotta statues on the monumental tombs of Taranto, dispel any doubts about their origin from southern Italy "

Photographs of the pieces were also seen in 2018 in a series of black and white photos documenting portions of the restored sculptures on the 8 December 2018 RAI documentary "Petrolio - Ladri di Bellezza" produced by journalist Duilio Giammaria and Senator Margherita Corrado has repeatedly spoken in the XVIII Session of the Italian Senate about the need to bring these artefacts home.

Yet, despite all that, the 4th century BCE sculptures were (still) center stage on the ground floor of the Getty Villa in California's Pacific Palisades during the museum's  exhibition: Underworld - Imagining the Afterlife as late as October 31, 2018–March 18, 2019.   They were removed only after this investigation came to a head earlier this year.  

When Orpheus and his Sirens eventually fly home in September, they will initially go on display in the Museo dell'Arte Salvata (Museum of Rescued Art), housed in the Octagonal Hall at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome.  Perhaps by then we will be able to publicly share how the New York District Attorney's Office in Manhattan, HSI-ICE and the Italian Carabinieri moved this case successfully forward.