Ancient terracotta sculptures get a hero’s welcome

Rome: Italy celebrated the return of three stolen ancient terracotta figures, depicting “Orpheus and the Sirens”, in a ceremony on Saturday at Rome’s newly inaugurated Museum of Rescued Art.

Until this year, the figures – which date to about 300 BC – had been on exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But Italian carabinieri officers in the country’s art theft division uncovered incontrovertible proof last year that the sculptures had been illegally excavated from a site in southern Italy, and the museum agreed to return them.

The J. Paul Getty Museum announced in August that it would ship back the nearly life-size group of statues known as Orpheus and the Sirens.Credit:AP

The head of the carabinieri art theft division, General Roberto Riccardi, said on Saturday at the ceremony that two moments from the investigation stood out. The first was in March 2021, when two lieutenants in his squad had come into his office to report that a suspect in an ongoing investigation had come clean. The statues, the suspect had told the officers, had been excavated by tomb robbers in the early 1970s in a town close to Taranto, in Puglia.

The second moment of note, Riccardi said, was exactly a week ago in Los Angeles, “at the Getty Museum, where the work had ended up”. “To see this work being packed up was truly one of the greatest things of my life,” Riccardi said.

“Orpheus and the Sirens” will be on temporary exhibit at the Rome museum, conceived as a showcase for repatriated art, before becoming part of the permanent collection of Taranto’s archaeological museum.

“I can’t help but think that in 10, in 100, in 1000 years, someone will go to the museum in Taranto will see the statues in their rightful place,” said Riccardi. Art can and should be seen everywhere, he said, “but it has to be done legally.”

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In the 53 years since the carabinieri art squad was founded, it has recovered thousands of artifacts stolen from churches, museums, private homes and libraries, and uncovered countless fakes. In the past two decades, many archaeological artifacts have been recovered from museums and private collections worldwide, including some in the United States, often purchased at a time when due diligence was not strictly applied to determine whether their provenance was legal.

This month, the Manhattan’s district attorney’s office seized 27 ancient artifacts valued at more than $US13 million ($19 million) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, asserting that the objects had all been looted.

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