The Relics Return

The dusty Via Garibaldi is about as trendy as it gets in the northwestern Sicilian village of Trapani, known mostly for its salt mines and ferry terminal. The narrow pedestrian street is the site of the daily passagiata by locals, who window-shop at boutiques housed in aging palazzi. But these days, one storefront offers much more than designer shoes or handbags: the Palazzo Milo Pappalardo contains the new exhibit "Selinunte Rediscovered: Materials Restituted from the J. Paul Getty Museum" (through Oct. 15), comprising precious artifacts stolen from the Greek ruins of nearby Selinunte that have recently been brought back to Italy from the Los Angeles museum. The free exhibit, displayed in a series of elegant, simply dressed storefront windows, is a far cry from the spectacularly modern Getty. But the collection, anchored by the sixth-century B.C. funeral epigraph of "Latinos" and a fifth-century B.C. religious text, or "Lex Sacra," looks a lot more at home here.

Seeing Italian artifacts in their context--where emperors once walked, where the statues originally stood and where the kraters were used to mix wine and water--can be a powerful experience, like a first-hand account of ancient history. Stumbling upon these returned treasures, proudly displayed in the heart of a rustic provincial capital, triggers deep feelings of national pride. The Lex Sacra, for example, is a tattered stone block on which the steps for conducting spiritual rituals are written in ancient Greek. It is of great significance to Italians--especially Sicilians--who routinely study the history of the Greeks who once inhabited the island. Likewise, the Greek funeral epigraph, which was returned from the Getty early this year as a goodwill gesture, bears an inscription that directly ties the early Romans to Greek ancestors. "Seeing these pieces here, back in this very province is long overdue," says Sicilian villager Roberto Paciello. "There is a new appreciation for them now."

The experience will soon get even better: on Oct. 15, the pieces will make it all the way home to the glorious Greek ruins of Selinunte, where they will be part of a permanent exhibit in the municipal museum there. For anyone who has climbed around those atmospheric ruins, where 2,000-year-old pillars are literally scattered on the cliff tops overlooking the turquoise sea, it's hard to argue that the treasures belong anywhere else. Only by delving deep into the layers of history--whether by literally climbing down into an abandoned tomb where a funeral script once adorned the walls or by simply exploring the ruins of an ancient villa--does one get a true sense of how these artifacts were used. Studying an ancient vase, for example, against the colors of the sky and the sea in Selinunte, enhances that object's significance. It's difficult to glean the same meaning from seeing it under floodlighting in a minimalist museum. Beyond allowing Italians to reclaim fragments of their stolen cultural heritage, the Selinunte exhibit also sets a worthy precedent for what to do with--and how to celebrate--the returned treasures. Each piece is greeted with ceremonial fanfare typically reserved for the return of a long-lost relative, complete with military officers, red carpet and a formal unveiling, often to the cheers of an appreciative crowd.

This week the National Museum of Rome will follow Sicily's lead and put on display 13 artifacts of questionable provenance quietly returned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts late last month. A week later, these pieces--including an immaculate second-century B.C. marble statue of Vibia Sabina, the wife of the Emperor Hadrian--will be distributed to the provincial capitals from where they were pilfered to bolster those local museums. Italians believe that it is vital to national honor and historical integrity to bring such relics home. "Returning these stolen artifacts to their context is the only option," says Maria Lucia Ferruzza, of the Sicilian Archeological Ministry in Trapani and co-curator of the exhibit. "They've finally come home. Let's hope we get the rest soon."

In fact, Italy is hoping that hundreds of artifacts, including 52 disputed museum pieces still in the Getty collection, will one day be returned. The trial of the former Getty curator Marion True and her primary art dealer, Robert Hecht, is winding up in Rome with what many say is overwhelming proof of decades of illicit dealings in stolen artifacts. The evidence--including Polaroids of mud-caked treasures, a tell-all memoir by Hecht and coded notes from True--makes the case seem more like a mystery thriller than a serious court trial. The latest episode began last week when art smuggler Giacomo Medici, who had already been convicted of selling stolen art to the Getty, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston MFA, started his appeal process. According to prosecutor Paolo Ferri, Medici has offered to produce an unidentified missing stolen Italian masterpiece--the so-called "Object X"--in exchange for a reduction in his fine and 10-year sentence.

Such courtroom antics may detract from the issue of looted art, but the trial has definitely made curators with questionable collections nervous. Last February, after intense negotiations with Italy's cultural patrimony police, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed eventually to return 21 pieces of uncertain provenance starting in 2008. For now the museum has signposted each of the pieces as "property of Italy"--a significant step, considering the millions the Met paid for them. A host of other museums in the United States, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, are also under pressure to return their questionable pieces. At the ceremony celebrating the Boston museum's returned goods, Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said agreements like those with the Met and Boston, who will get some Italian artifacts on a loan basis in exchange for the returns, "can accelerate those others that are proceeding more slowly."

Reclaiming items known to have been stolen or sold on the black market has been an incredible challenge for the Italians, who have seen results only after resorting to criminal proceedings against True. For decades Italy tried to retrieve its looted artifacts through diplomatic efforts--mostly in the form of official letters offering up proof that certain museum items had left the country through illegal channels. But they had little effect; many foreign officials argued that since Italy already had so many treasures, the contested items might end up in warehouses and in any case, were better off in American museums that boasted more visitors and state-of-the-art technology. That, Italian officials argue, misses the point. "In Los Angeles or New York, visitors just look at the Italian artifacts along with countless other pieces, almost like checking them off a list," says Ferruzza. "It doesn't mean much to them. To us, though, it's our personal history."

Even so, the Italian cultural ministry does not intend to keep all its treasures to itself forever. The goal of the patrimony police and cultural community has always been to share their riches with foreign museums--as long as they acknowledge the provenance of those relics and return the stolen pieces, many of them undocumented, to be studied and catalogued. Without that background, it doesn't matter where one appreciates an ancient marble statue or religious text. Still, given the difference between gazing upon an antiquity in the sterile environment of a foreign museum or within kilometers of its original home, it's hard not to see the value in putting art back in its original context.