ROME – Italy celebrated the return of three stolen ancient terracotta figurines depicting “Orpheus and the Sirens” in a ceremony Saturday at the newly opened Museum of Salvaged Art in Rome.
Up to this year the figures were from around 300 BC. on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But Italian Carabinieri officers from the country’s art theft division last year uncovered indisputable evidence that the sculptures had been illegally excavated at a site in southern Italy, and the museum agreed to return them.
The head of the Carabinieri’s art theft branch, General Roberto Riccardi, said at the ceremony on Saturday that two moments stood out from the investigation. The first was in March 2021, when two lieutenants from his force had come to his office to report that a suspect in an ongoing investigation had come clean. The statues, the suspect had told officers, were unearthed by grave robbers in a town near Taranto, in Puglia, in the early 1970s.
The second notable moment, Riccardi said, was exactly a week ago in Los Angeles, “at the Getty Museum, where the work landed.” “Seeing how this work was packaged was truly one of the greatest things of my life,” said Riccardi.
“Orpheus and the Sirens” is on temporary display at the Rome Museum, conceived as a showcase for repatriated art, before becoming part of the permanent collection of the Archaeological Museum of Taranto.
“I can’t help but think that 10, 100, 1,000 years from now someone will go to the museum in Taranto to see the statues in their rightful place,” Riccardi said. Art can and should be seen anywhere, he said, “but it has to be done legally.”
In the 53 years since the Carabinieri Art Squad was formed, it has recovered thousands of artifacts stolen from churches, museums, homes and libraries, and uncovered countless forgeries. Over 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 rigorously applied to determine whether their provenance was legal.
This month, Manhattan prosecutors seized 27 ancient artifacts worth more than $13 million from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, claiming the objects were all looted.
New York investigators – along with the Carabinieri, prosecutors in Taranto and the US Department of Homeland Security – were also involved in the return of the Orpheus and the Sirens statues. The three statues were returned to Italy along with 142 looted artifacts, most of which had belonged to billionaire industrialist Michael Steinhardt and the Royal-Athena Galleries in Manhattan.
The life-size terra-cotta figurines had been acquired by Getty himself in 1976, Getty Museum officials said, and his diary showed he paid $550,000. Officials said Saturday the work was estimated at $8 million.
The expertise, knowledge and success of the Carabinieri “is something that Italy should be very proud of,” Italy’s Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said on Saturday.
Stéphane Verger, director of the National Roman Museum, who oversees the new museum in Rome, said the figures of “Orpheus and the Sirens” would “start a new life” beginning with their display at the museum, which was different from their kind been shown in Los Angeles.
The three statues had been displayed side by side at the Getty. In Rome, the figure of Orpheus was juxtaposed with the two sirens to better explain “the meaning of the work,” Verger said.
In Greek mythology, the sirens lured seafarers to their deaths with their singing. But Orpheus, traveling with a group of Argonauts, helped them sail safely past the sirens by playing and singing loudly on his lyre.
“It’s a moment of confrontation,” said Verger. The revised reading of the three numbers was “made possible by the recovery,” he said.
Franceschini said it is imperative that looted artworks are returned to their place of origin as they are “central to a territory’s identity,” he said. “When they return home, it’s a moment of great celebration, of great pride, and it will be the same in Taranto when they welcome ‘Orpheus and the Sirens’ with open arms.”
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