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The Getty’s Goddess: Acquired on the “No News is Good News” Principle

As described yesterday by the “Felcholino” duo of the LA Times, the procedure by which the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1988 acquired the 5th century B.C. “Cult Statue of a Goddess” (possibly Aphrodite), now claimed by Italy, may seem ethically deficient by today’s standards. But it was standard practice at the time: American museums would customarily contact possible source countries to solicit possible claims on the antiquities being considered for acquisition. Hearing none (as was usually the case), they would proceed with the purchase.
As recounted by Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch:
In August 1987, the Getty had an Italian law firm send photos of the Aphrodite to the Italian Ministry of Culture, saying “an important foreign institution” was interested in buying the statue and requesting information about its authenticity….That November, Italy notified the Getty’s Italian attorneys that it had no information about the Aphrodite.
According to the LA Times account, the Getty’s policy at the time was “to continue buying suspect antiquities and put the burden of proving that an object was illicit on foreign governments.” Because Italy and other source countries were not nearly as vigilant in protecting their cultural heritage then as they are today, this policy opened the door to acquisitions of objects that some of the museums’ own experts suspected of possibly tainted provenance.
In another case of great sleuthing, the Felcholino team came up with a key former Getty employee who was willing to talk, on the record, about his strong, informed misgivings over acquiring the 7-foot limestone and marble goddess:
Luis Monreal, [then] director of the Getty Conservation Institute, saw signs that the object had been looted. There was dirt in the folds of the gown, and the torso had what appeared to be new fractures, suggesting that the statue had been recently unearthed and broken apart for easy smuggling.
“Any museum professional looking at an archeological piece in those conditions had to suspect it came from an illicit origin,” Monreal recalled in a recent interview.
He said he warned the museum’s director not to buy the statue.

Like the “Getty Bronze,” this appears to be an object that would not likely have been acquired under today’s stricter standards for seeking proof of clean provenance. And like the bronze, stone goddess raised substantial doubts about its origins not just in recent years, but at the time that it was acquired.

an ArtsJournal blog