Getty to return illegally excavated Orpheus works to Italy

The J. Paul Getty Museum is bringing back to Italy its Orpheus Sculpture Group—a culturally significant group of near-life-size terracotta figures known as “Orpheus and the Sirens,” some of the museum’s greatest antiquities. The objects that have been proven to be illegally excavated and exported will be sent to Rome in September. The institution is coordinating with the Italian Ministry of Culture the return of four more objects at a later date.

“Getty is not in a position to comment on any information leading to the return of Orpheus,” spokeswoman Julie Jaskol said. “The information was provided by Matthew Bogdanos of the Manhattan Attorney’s Office Antiquities Trafficking Unit, who developed the evidence in an investigation unrelated to Getty. The evidence convinced us that the statues had been illegally excavated and that it was appropriate to return them in accordance with Getty policies.”

Bogdanos could not comment as the investigation is ongoing, a spokesman for the Manhattan Attorney’s Office said.

“This piece is being returned as part of an ongoing and active criminal investigation,” the spokesperson said in an email, “which revealed the antique was trafficked.”

“Orpheus and the Sirens” is extremely fragile, and the museum says it is working on “specially bespoke devices and procedures” for its transfer.

J. Paul Getty purchased the Orpheus sculptures in the spring of 1976. They were among his last acquisitions before his death on June 6th.

In his diary, which is part of the Getty Archives, an entry dated Saturday, March 6, 1976 states that he “purchased the following objects” including “a group of 3 Greek statues that were found at the end of the 4th CBC made in Tarentum depict a seated singer Orpheus and 2 standing sirens.$550,000 from Bank Leu. All of these were, of course, turned on [Czech American archaeologist Jiří Frel’s] Recommendation.” Frel was Curator of Antiquities at Getty’s from 1973 to 1986.

The $550,000 Getty paid in 1976 is equivalent to about $3 million today, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI inflation calculator.

The Gettys "Colossal head of a deity."

Getty’s “Colossal Head of a Deity” (made to be placed in a statue) from the second century AD is one of the objects the museum is bringing back to Italy. A date for the handover has yet to be set.

(From the Getty Museum)

The Orpheus sculptural group is an incredibly important work for Getty. It has been on display in a gallery on the ground floor of the Getty Villa since it was acquired more than four decades ago.

“It is very important work. I would even say one of the most important in the [Getty Museum’s] collection,” said Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum, in an interview. “So there will be a loss of what we can represent about the art of the ancient classical world, in this case southern Italy in the late fourth century BC.”

Potts said the work was particularly unique because of its scale, quality and subject – it suggests the mythical story of Jason and the Argonauts, which would make the sculpture’s seated man, playing a harp-like instrument, Orpheus.

“It’s just extremely rare and there’s nothing quite like it in our collection or in any collection very similar,” said Potts. “It leaves a hole in our gallery, but with this evidence that came out there was no question that it had to be sent back to Italy.”

“We value our strong and fruitful relationship with the Italian Ministry of Culture and with our many archaeological, conservation, curatorial and other scholarly colleagues throughout Italy, with whom we share the mission of advancing the preservation of ancient cultural heritage,” Potts said in a statement.

A painting with five standing figures and two bowing at their feet.

The Oracle (1880), an oil painting by Camillo Miola, is one of the objects Getty is returning to Italy.

(From the Getty Museum)

The other pieces being brought back to Italy — none of which have been exhibited in recent years — are a colossal marble head of a deity and a limestone mold for casting pendants, both from the second century AD, along with a 19th-century oil painting by Camillo 19th-century Miola, “The Oracle,” and a bronze Etruscan thymiaterion, a ceremonial incense burner, 4th-century B.C. The latter was acquired by Getty in 1996, while the other three objects were acquired in the 1970s. Getty to return illegally excavated Orpheus works to Italy

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