Getty Museum to return illegally excavated ancient sculptures to Italy

In 2017, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office established an Antiquities Trafficking Unit to crack down illicit trade of cultural property. For a while, the media was flooded with news of looted antiques being seized or returned, causing quite an uproar among American public and private collectors regarding the unit’s aggressive approach and choice of legal provisions.

Recently, the unit has made another major founding – a trio of 2,000-year-old Orpheus and the Sirens Greek sculptures in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles had been illegally excavated or smuggled out from Italy. In response, the museum has removed the items from public view and will return the sculptures to Rome in September – meaning the Getty will be stripped of one of its most valuable pieces, which held pride of place near the museum’s entrance.

A trio of Greek Orpheus and the Sirens sculptures to be returned by the Getty

John Paul Getty, the founder of J. Paul Getty Museum and the richest person in the world then

According to the Getty Museum, the Orpheus and the Sirens sculptures were originated from Taranto, a coastal city in southern Italy. Founded by the Spartans in the 8th century during the period of Greek colonisation, Taranto had been under different colonial rules, including the Romans, Germanics and Normans. It wasn’t until the Unification of Italy during the 19th century that the city become part of Italy.

Once a thriving city colonised by the Greek, Taranto boasts its richness of artefacts and large sacred complexes. Unfortunately, as the city has been continuously occupied, many of the ancient architecture and antique were dismantled or lost.

One of a few well-preserved examples of Greek artefacts is this group of three nearly life-size terracotta statues, known as Orpheus and the Sirens, which was sold by a Swiss private bank in the 1970s to John Paul Getty – the founder of J. Paul Getty Museum and the richest person in the world then.

The Getty Villa Museum, one of the two sites of the J. Paul Getty Museum

Orpheus and the Sirens on display

Dating to between 350 and 300 BCE, Orpheus and the Sirens depict a seated poet flanked by two mythical sirens. In Greek mythology, Siren is a creature half bird and half woman who lured sailors to destruction by the sweetness of her song.

While the precise identity of the seated poet remains uncertain, the museum suggests he could be Orpheus in Greek mythology – a musician, poet and prophet who saved the Argonauts from the music of the Sirens by playing his own powerful music.

As Sirens are often connected with the deceased, placing Orpheus between them could be seen as a symbol of triumphing over death. The group is also believed to be a decoration of a tomb since it was originally brightly painted.

Colossal Head of a Divinity (made for insertion into statue), 2nd century, Roman

Mold for Casting Pendants, about 2nd century AD, Roman

Camillo Miola | Oracle at Delphi, Oil on canvas

Thymiaterion, Etruscan, 350–325 BC, Bronze

Orpheus and the Sirens aside, four other artefacts which haven’t been shown to the public before were also eligible for return to Italy. These include a second-century AD colossal marble head of a divinity; a second-century AD stone mold for casting pendants; an oil painting entitled Oracle at Delphi by Camillo Miola; and a fourth-century BC Etruscan bronze Thymiaterion.

The first three of these objects were all acquired in the 1970s; the fourth in 1996. The marble head and Oracle at Delphi painting were bought from British antique dealer Robin Symes and renowned American art dealer Ira Spanierman respectively; while the stone mold and bronze thymiaterion were donations by art collectors Lawrence A. Fleischman and Bruce McNall respectively.

Marion True, then curator of antiquities for the J. Paul Getty Museum

In fact, it wasn’t the first time that the Getty has been involved in such kind of controversy.

In 2005, Marion True, then curator of antiquities for the museum, was formally accused by the Italian government of conspiring to launder stolen artifacts through private collections and creating a fake paper trail; the Greeks followed suit the next year. 

While charges against True were eventually dismissed, she has vanished from the art world for almost a decade. Until 2015, she told The Washington Post that she was writing her memoir – though it's still unpublished up to the present. And the Getty had to all the looted artefacts to Italy after the trial.