In about 430 B.C., the Greek sculptor Phidias created a forty-foot tall, gold and ivory statue of Zeus for the temple of Zeus at Olympia, one of the most important religious sanctuaries in the Greek world. This statue later came to be considered one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
The sculptor of 29-inch marble statuette “Zeus Enthroned” from the first century B.C. is unknown but must have been strongly influenced by the famous colossal image. Zeus, the king of the gods, sits on an ornamental, high-backed throne with his feet on a footstool. His draping cloak exposes his powerful chest. His raised right hand probably held a scepter and his left hand a thunderbolt.
The statue’s travels are many, but not entirely clear. Initially, it may have served as a cult statue in a private shrine of a wealthy Greek or Roman home. At some point, it spent a long time submerged in the sea as the marine incrustations indicate. Then the path grows even colder. What we do know is that the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles bought the statue in 1992 from an American couple but there is no documentation to indicate that it was legally exported.
Now, because of a recently discovered fragment of the statue on the island of Capri near Naples, the statue is voluntarily being returned to Italy. This is the latest example in a long series of artworks that the Getty has returned to Italy because of questionable provenance. In January 2015, the Getty returned the “Head of Hades” to Sicily (see post, “The Underworld,” of April 21, 2016).
The question of who owns the world’s art is timeless. As is the question of whether one country, which has cared for and protected art that may have been stolen from another country, should be forced to return it. The modern restitution question first arose in the 1970s as archaeologists, journalists, and public officials realized that looting was not a thing of the past. The growing market in the West was fueling destruction of archaeological sites. There was collusion along the entire chain of actors in smuggled antiquities—from tomb robbers to restorers, upscale dealers, auction houses, and wealthy collectors. There also was a lack of clear international law to regulate all of this.
For years Italy has waged a campaign against museums, dealers, and collectors for return of artifacts it claims were illegally excavated and smuggled from the country. This culminated in a criminal trial in Italy beginning in 2005 of Marion True, the antiquities curator of the Getty Museum. The trial was agonizingly slow. In the end, the statute of limitations expired, and perhaps we will never know if Marion True was a scapegoat or a scofflaw. But the demands for returned art were daunting for the Getty, which at that time returned 40 masterworks, including a large statue of Aphrodite.
I can’t help but ask, “Who really ‘owns’ Zeus Enthroned”? After all, it is a Greek statue. Italy owns it now. (See post of October 1, 2015 entitled, “The Controversy over who owns the Art of the World.”)