The Venus of Morgantina is back! Maybe! I don’t know!


«The Venus of Morgantina shall come back to Sicily last week of February. But the inauguration of the museum in Aidone  will be postponed until April or May». That’s the news. But still the Venus has not touched the coasts of Sicily.

The Venus of Morgantina is a female statue of marble, of the height of 2.20 m, which represents the goddess dressed in a rich and elegant drapery, wet effect. The statue was built between 425 BC and 400 BC by a sculptor deemed to be from the  school of Phidias. The face and arms are carved in greek marble, the rest of the body in a calcareous tuff. It was just the quality of the tuff used to reveal the origin of the statue. Test results have, in fact, revealed that it comes from Sicily. The statue, according to the this test, but also to documents and witnesses, must be the one which was formerly located in the agora of Morgantina near Aidone, currently in the province of Enna in Sicily.
It was stolen between 1977 and 1979 by tomb raiders in Sicily,  in a country place called San Francesco. The thieves took a shot of it  with a Polaroid and started looking for a buyer. They found  it only a few days later. So they broke the statue into three parts, loaded  it onto a truck which took it directly in Switzerland, officially carrying furniture. The statue arrived without problems in Lugano, where it passed into the hands of the Italian architect Renzo Canavesi an art trafficker, though officially a dealer in foreign currencies.
 Canavesi then sold it for 400 thousand dollars to Robin Symes, the famous english gallerist who took it over in his art gallery in Geneva. Symes succeeded in providing a declaration by an Italian architect, who claimed to have been in possession of the statue since 1939, surprisingly (but not so much) just before the entry into force of the Bottai Statute, the first law  in Italy to declare in the public ownership of any archaeological finding which  from that moment on  was to be discovered on the Italian territory. With the false pedigree Symes in 1998 could easily sell the statue to the Getty Museum, at the time managed by Mrs. Marion True, who bought it for $ 18 million through a London auction house, to disperse further tracks.

Now the Italian Government has claimed it back from the Getty Museum and the Venus is back, though not yet (at the moment we are writing this comment) at her final destination, the Archaeological  Museum in the tiny Sicilian town of Aidone.


But the way we got it back is worth recalling, because it is a typical Italian story of  superficiality and stubbornness. An undeniable responsibility lies in fact with  the Italian authorities of the time, who in August 1987, answered American inquiries concerning the statue saying that there was no sure news of its illicit provenance.
Nevertheless, on  March 5 2001 the Court of Enna sentenced Renzo Canavesi to two years imprisonment and payment of 40 billion Italian liras in compensation to the Italian State: 20 billion for the estimated value of the statue, the other 20 for moral damages. It was the first conviction of its kind for illegal export of works of art from Italy.
Then started a long negotiation  between the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage  and the Getty Museum. On   November 10, 2006 in Rome, speaking at a conference organized by the FAI (an Italian  private Fund for Environment Protection), the then Minister for Cultural Heritage, Francesco Rutelli,  threatened  the Getty Museum with a cultural embargo, that is to exclude him from cultural cooperation with Italy, unless they agreed to return to Italy all the illegally exported cultural goods (some fifty of them) claimed by Italian authorities.
Ten days later, on November 20, 2006, in a letter addressed to Minister Rutelli, Michael Brand, director of the Getty Museum,  proposed to set the dispute with the return of  the 26 works for which the parties had already signed a bilateral agreement on 5 October 2006, an agreement which Italy claimed to be only an interim settlement of the dispute.
Back from  the States, where he had flown to sign similar agreements with other Museums, Rutelli  December 20, 2006, issued an ultimatum: either the return of all works requested by Italy, including the Venus of  Morgantina and the Athlete of  Fano (which is owned by the Getty and known over there simply as the Getty Bronze), or the threatened cultural embargo.
In the end an agreement was reached for the return of 40 works of art from the Getty to Italy and a large program of cultural cooperation between Italy and the American Museum, with long-term loans from Italy of significant works of art, exhibitions, joint research projects, conservation and restoration.

And now the Venus is back. Not yet in Sicily. But you know. 

Rosario “Saro” Sapienza

Professor of Cultural Heritage Law

The Lateran Pontifical University  in Rome


Trascrizione fonetica

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