The journey of two archaic sculptures over recent decades might resemble the wanderings of Odysseus as he sought to return home after the Trojan War. Created in 525 B.C., the acroliths were rumored to have been pillaged from an archaeological site in Sicily in the 1970s by tomb robbers. Sometime later, they were sold on the art market for the reported sum of $1 million.
By 1988, the sculptures had traveled to Los Angeles, where they were unveiled at the J. Paul Getty Museum. They created an immediate sensation and, almost at once, a storm of controversy: Italian officials claimed, based on credible evidence, that they were looted. The Getty immediately pulled the statues from its gallery and returned them to their anonymous donor, whom the New York Times later named as Maurice Tempelsman, a New York diamond merchant and former companion of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Italian investigators had been piecing together the trail of the stolen artifacts for more than a decade, aided by testimony from former tomb robbers who had seen or been offered the marble heads—once from the trunk of a car. Officials identified a Sicilian dealer who smuggled the acroliths to a fellow Sicilian in Switzerland, who then sold them to Robin Symes, a dealer in London. Tempelsman, who bought the pair in 1980 from Symes, has always maintained that he believed they were acquired legitimately.
In a 1999 New Yorker article about the scandal, it was said of the statues: “They have never been seen in public again.”
In 2002, however, they quietly reappeared—at the UVA Art Museum. There, prominently displayed behind glass in the museum’s foyer, they have given students an unprecedented opportunity for study. UVA has safeguarded the acroliths with the approval of Italian authorities and the understanding that they would be returned to Sicily after a five-year period, as set out by the terms of the donation.
“As original archaic Greek statues in the acrolithic technique, these are exceedingly rare sculptures,” says Malcolm Bell III, professor of classical archaeology and art history at the University.
Now, as with Odysseus, fate smiles on their return.
“We are very happy now to repatriate them, send them back to their original context,” says Bell.
Bell served as an adviser for both the U.S. and Italy for an accord reached in 2001 concerning the return of certain Italian antiquities. He also has served as a consultant to the Italian government on issues regarding the illegal antiquities market and the repatriation of Italian works in collections in the U.S.
Originally made from marble, cloth and wood, the life-size sculptures now consist only of the stone heads, hands and feet. Because fine-quality stone was in short supply, artists reserved the material for the visible parts, using wood and drapery to make up the rest.
Valuable by any standard, the acroliths are particularly treasured because they are a pair and for the fact that officials know precisely where they were excavated—from an ancient sanctuary in Morgantina, where UVA has conducted research for more than 25 years.
“They are truly remarkable sculptures. There’s nothing quite like them,” says Bell, who has directed archaeological excavations at Morgantina since 1980.
Researchers believe the same sculptor carved both works. The two smiling goddesses originally sat side-by-side in a small temple with their hands extended, probably holding wheat—representing Demeter as the goddess of the grain harvest and Kore, also called Persephone, as the queen of the underworld.
They eventually will be displayed at the Morgantina Museum along with other objects found in the sanctuary. Together, they help tell the story of the city’s origins.
In February, scholars from both countries gathered at UVA for a symposium, “The Goddesses Return,” to celebrate their repatriation.
Elizabeth Hutton Turner, vice provost for the arts and interim director of the UVA Art Museum, says the University has been fortunate to be able to display them over the past five years. “What better lesson for our students than to be good stewards of great art and to do the right thing by repatriating these works,” she says.