From The Charlottesville Daily Progress.com
UVa to return looted Greek statues
By Brian McNeill
January 4, 2008
The University of Virginia announced Thursday that it will return to Italy two ancient Greek sculptures of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone - nearly three decades after they were looted from Sicily by tomb raiders.
The extremely rare and valuable acroliths - created around 525 B.C. out of cloth, wood and Greek island marble - were donated to UVa in 2002 and have been on display at the university’s art museum for the past five years.
“We’re honored that we had them,” said UVa art history professor Malcolm Bell III. “We took good care of them. A lot of students saw them and learned from them. Now we’re happy to return them to Italy.”
The life-size acrolith statues were originally displayed inside a temple in Morgantina, an ancient Greek settlement near what is now the Italian city of Aidone. They are believed to represent Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture and grain, and her daughter Persephone, or Kore, the queen of the underworld.
UVa has kept mum about who donated the statues to its museum.
However, the New York Times reported in September that New York diamond merchant and philanthropist Maurice Tempelsman previously owned the acroliths.
Upon receiving the statues in 2002, UVa negotiated a deal to keep them for five years, with the understanding that they would be returned to Italy afterward. The Italian government endorsed the deal.
To mark the return of the sculptures, UVa will host a symposium Feb. 2 titled “The Goddesses Return.” Following the event - which will feature discussions on museum ethics, the antiquities market and archaeological preservation - members of the Italian police, called carabinieri, will escort the acroliths back to Italy.
“We’re very pleased and grateful and happy to be getting these magnificent statues back,” said Silvia Limoncini, a cultural counselor of the Italian Embassy in Washington. “It’s an example of the excellent relationship between Italy and the United States.”
Since their discovery in 1978, the two acroliths have traveled the world via the black market of looted antiquities. According to the New York Times, they were smuggled through Switzerland and surfaced in a London showroom in 1980. Tempelsman bought the acroliths from the London dealer for $1 million, the newspaper reported, adding that there is no indication that Tempelsman knew they had a potentially shady origin.
In the late 1980s, the statues were on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But after an Italian prosecutor notified the museum that they were possibly illegally excavated, the acroliths were returned to Tempelsman.
According to a report in Forbes magazine, the Italian government began negotiating with Tempelsman in the 1990s for the return of the acroliths. Under the deal, the statues would be given to an institution, which would hold them for a time before turning them over to Italy.
The fact that UVa is returning the sculptures next month is a rare educational opportunity, said Elizabeth Hutton Turner, UVa’s vice provost for the arts and interim director of the art museum.
“This is a great moment for the university and a great moment for the museum,” she said. “It’s a lesson to our students that we can do the right thing and that we can be good stewards of antiquities.”
Upon the acroliths’ return to Italy, they will be displayed at a museum in Aidone. In the coming years, the sculptures will be joined by other priceless works of repatriated art from American museums. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is returning 16 pieces of silver that were snatched from Morgantina. Also, the J. Paul Getty Trust is sending the museum a looted sculpture of Aphrodite.
The return of the acroliths is especially appropriate, Bell said, because the myths of Demeter and Persephone both involved themes of traveling and returning. After Persephone is kidnapped and taken to the underworld, her mother searches for her across the Earth. Meanwhile, Persephone returns to Earth once a year, heralding spring and rebirth.
“The idea of traveling is important in their cult, it’s important in their myth and now it’s important to the sculptures,” he said.
More coverage at BBC News online.