Once again, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, returns a work of art to Italy. On January 30, 2015, the “Head of Hades” boarded a plane on its way home to Sicily.
The story begins more than 2,000 years ago. In the Hellenistic era, artists in Southern Italy, where high-quality marble had to be imported, often used terracotta for large-scale work. This terracotta head, probably broken off of a larger statue, resided in Morgantina in central Sicily for centuries. Today considered rare and precious, this head had polychrome red brick hair and a blue beard (traces of which remain), which earned it the nickname “Bluebeard.”
Then in the 1970s, tomb robbers with a flair for masterpieces stole it from the Sanctuary of Demeter, located within the Archaeological Park of Morgantina. Then begins the road to the Getty, a young, ambitious, and very wealthy museum. The terracotta head probably passed through several hands. What we know is that in 1985 the Getty purchased it for $530,000 from New York collector Maurice Tempelsman, who had purchased it from London dealer Robin Symes.
Next…2 archaeologists from Sicily: Lucia Ferruzza had spent 20 years in the service of the Cultural Heritage of the Sicilian Region, and Serena Raffiotta was born and raised a stone’s throw from Morgantina and did her postgraduate thesis at the University of Catania. Her father for 20 years engaged in the fight against grave robbers as Prosecutor of the Province of Enna (“I was brought up on bread and pottery.”). They met at a convention. Lucia was thumbing through Serena’s thesis and stopped at a page that intrigued her: “an extraordinary blue curl that had been discovered in the suburban sanctuary of San Francesco Bisconti Morgantina.” Lucia thought there might be a connection to an artifact she had seen when she was on scholarship at the Getty in 1987. She returned in 2000, commissioned by the museum to do research on pottery. The mysterious head was correctly labeled at the Getty as coming from southern Italy, but the card in the case said, “probably Zeus.” As Lucia says, “the blue curl in Sicily became our Cinderella’s slipper.” Thus began the long road to restitution.
The head had been thought to be that of Zeus, the king of the gods, because he was called “blue bearded” in the Homeric poems. But it is now believed to represent his brother, Hades, Greek god of the Underworld, based on other finds from the ancient city of Morgantina. The religion there centered on the cult of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. According to the Greek myth, Hades abducted Persephone at Lake Pergusa, not far from Morgantina, and required her to return to the underworld several months every year. This was the ancients’ explanation for winter and the changing of the seasons.
Morgantina is the same heavily looted archaeological site in Sicily where the Getty’s former statue of Aphrodite was looted around the same time as the head of Hades. The Getty acquired the statue of Aphrodite from Symes in 1988 for $18 million. Since that statue’s return to Sicily, experts believe that it represents the goddess Persephone or her mother, Demeter.
At a solemn ceremony at the end of January, Antonio Verde, the Consul General of Italy in Los Angeles, said proudly, “We need above all the commitment and competence of Italian archaeologists…from a curl of blue pottery found among the remains of illegal excavations, it was possible to check the provenance of the head of the same color at the Getty.” The head will now reside at the Archaeological Museum of Aidone (Enna).
The head is the latest artifact that the Getty has returned to Italy following the museum’s 2007 agreement with the country’s Ministry of Culture. The agreement was made after a protracted legal battle over looted works of art that involved the former Getty curator Marion True. (See post of October 1, 2015.)