Tag Archives: Aphrodite

The Guardian and the Goddess: Looted Statues Reveal Workings of Illicit Trade

The Getty’s Aphrodite

The Contested Temple Guardian

What does a 10th century Khmer temple warrior have in common with a Greek cult goddess from the 5th Century B.C.?

Quite a bit, it turns out. Both were objects of veneration whose remarkable craftsmanship represented the apex of their respective cultures’ artistic achievement. Both massive limestone statues were looted and purposely broken  to make them easier to smuggle — telltale scars that decades later would bear witness to a violent and illicit origin. And both reveal a strikingly similar story about the ugly inner workings of the trade in ancient art.

We told the story of the Getty’s goddess in Chasing Aphrodite. The story of the Khmer temple guardian is being told today in legal filings by Sotheby’s and the US Attorney’s office, which is suing for the return of the statue on behalf of Cambodia in a federal court in Manhattan. (We’ve written previously about the case here here and here.) Both parties agree the statue was removed at some point from an ancient temple complex at Koh Ker, where the statue’s feet remain to this day. The key question — unanswered in the government’s earlier filings — is when.

The Norton Simon’s Bhima

This month the U.S. Attorney’s office amended its original complaint with damaging new details that apparently came to light through pre-trial discovery of Sotheby’s internal correspondence. The filing, which we’ve embedded below, is worth reading in full. Among other things, it reveals how little the art world has changed since the 1980s, when the Getty bought its cult goddess amid clear signs the statute had been recently looted and then sought to cover up those illicit origins.

Here are some highlights:

Date of looting: The federal government is now stating that the Sotheby’s statue, representing Duryodhana, and its companion at the Norton Simon Museum, representing Bhima, were looted from a temple complex in Koh Ker “in or around 1972.” This addresses Sotheby’s earlier contention that the statue might have been removed sometime prior to the 1920s.

Intentional Damage by Looters: Like the Getty’s Aphrodite, the Koh Ker statues were intentionally dismembered to make them easier to smuggle:

“In the case of monumental statues like the [Sotheby's warrior] the heads would sometimes be forcibly removed and transported first, with the torso following later, due to the difficulty of physically transporting the large torsos.”

In September 2010, this detail was noted by an expert hired by Sotheby’s to prepare a condition report on the statue.

“[The Scientist's] theory is that the sculpture was either forcibly broken for ease of transport from the find site and then put back together later, or that the head and the torso did not belong together.”

The feet of the two ancient sandstone statues were left behind by looters at a temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia.

The Scientist proposed a testing plan to determine which was the case. Instead of accepting that plan, Sotheby’s fired the expert, the complaint alleges. Readers of Chasing Aphrodite will recall that similar questions were raised about the head of the Aphrodite and the fresh breaks on the statue’s body (p. 93 – 94.) Luis Monreal, the head of the Getty Conservation Institute, proposed tests on soil and pollen found in the folds of the statue Aphrodite to determine its origin. The Getty Museum instead opted for ignorance.

Market Path: The amended complaint specifies that after they were stolen from Koh Ker by “an organized looting network,” the statues at Sotheby’s and the Norton Simon were smuggled to Bangkok and delivered to a Thai dealer, who sold them to a “well known collector.” The New York Times has identified that dealer as Douglas A. J. Latchford. (Latchford co-authored a book on Khmer art with Emma Bunker, the expert cited in previous filings as saying in emails to Sotheby’s that the statue had been ‘definitely stolen.’) Latchford allegedly conspired with the London auction house Spink to obtain false export permits for the statues and they were transported it to London in 1971 or 1972, the amended complaint states. The Duryodhana was sold to a Belgian businessman in 1975, and his widow consigned it for sale by Sotheby’s in 2010.

Sotheby’s Deceit: The complaint alleges Sotheby’s knowingly misled potential buyers, Cambodian officials and U.S. investigators about the statue’s ownership history, claiming it had been seen in the UK in the late 1960s — well before the 1970 UNESCO convention. In fact, the government alleges, Sotheby’s knew the statue had been with Latchford in SE Asia until the early 1970s. To support their claim, the complaint cites emails between Sotheby’s and Latchford, who is described as “the original seller of the sculpture back in 1975.” One of those internal emails reveals Sotheby’s concerns about how the statue’s provenance will affect its sale:

“The most important question is the provenance. Can [the Collector] tell us if he acquired this sculpture before 1970? That’s the standard [an art advisor to a prospective buyer] is applying. It’s what his client wants.”

“Sotheby’s inaccurate representations dating the [statue's] appearance in the United Kingdom to the late 1960’s, rather than after 1972, therefore eliminated a significant obstacle to the selling the [statue,]” the complaint states.

Indeed, Latchford’s name was omitted from the object’s stated ownership history.

In a statement to the New York Times, Sotheby’s denied the government’s claims, saying the U.S. attorney’s office was trying “to tar Sotheby’s with a hodgepodge of other allegations designed to create the misimpression that Sotheby’s acted deceptively in selling the statue…That is simply not true.”

The Best of Chasing Aphrodite 2011

Happy New Year!

We want to share our profound thanks for the 24,000 visits we’ve had since we launched this site with the release of Chasing Aphrodite last May. You’ve helped make the book a success while shining a light on art world shenanigans. Thank you for reading.

We’ve got many more revelations in store for you in 2012. If you’d like to keep receiving updates, be sure to subscribe via the box on the top right. You can also follow our more frequent comments on the latest news by liking our Facebook page or following us on Twitter.

We hope to see some of you at our upcoming events, which include talks at the National Press Club in DC on January 24th and Google and UCLA in February. You can get details and find our other event listings here.

Without further ado, here are your favorite posts of 2011:

1. An Exchange with Hugh Eakin at The New York Review of Books

Our exchange with Hugh Eakin in The New York Review of Books caught a lot of attention last year. We found the review flattering in several places, but also curiously littered with contradictions. Here is Hugh’s June  review, and our response. An abbreviated version of the exchange was printed in the NYROB’s August issue here.

2. The Secret FBI File: J. Edgar Hoover vs. J. Paul Getty

Was J. Paul Getty a Nazi collaborator? That is the provocative question that J. Edgar Hoover asked in 1940, when the FBI opened a secret investigation into J. Paul Getty’s possible ties to the Nazi regime. While reporting Chasing Aphrodite, we obtained Getty’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. We posted the annotated file online and pulled out highlights of the investigation.

3. Getty Museum Returns Two Objects to Greece, Signs Collaboration Deal

In 2011, American museums continued to return looted antiquities to their country of origin, and the Getty Museum was no exception. In September, the Getty agreed to return two objects to Greece and formalized a broad cultural agreement that will lead to loans, joint research and other collaboration with the art-rich Hellenic Republic. The agreement mirrors similar deals struck with Italy and Sicily in the wake of a negotiated settlement to claims the Getty had for years purchased ancient art looted from those countries.

4. The Becchina Dossier: A New Window into the Illicit Trade

The conviction of Italian dealer Giacamo Medici set off the whirlwind of controversy detailed in the final chapters of Chasing Aphrodite. But Medici was just the opening move of the Italian investigation of the illicit antiquities trade. In 2001, Italian authorities raided the warehouse of Medici’s main rival, Gianfranco Becchina, seizing 13,000 documents, 6,315 antiquities and 8,000 photographs of objects, many of which appeared recently excavated.  Today, it is the Becchina Dossier that forms the center of Italy’s continuing investigation of the international trade in looted antiquities. Like the Medici files, the Becchina Dossier provides a striking record of the illicit trade, showing the path of thousands of looted objects from tombs across the Mediterranean to the display cases of leading museums around the world. Stay tuned as we’ll be making public more details from the Becchina case in 2012.

5. Chasing Persephone?

When the Getty’s statue of Aphrodite was returned to Italy in May, we were there to tell the story. In this report for the LA Times, Jason described how new theories about the goddess are being considered now that she’s back home. Who is the goddess? Does her slightly awkward marble head really belong atop the massive limestone body? Where precisely was she found? And what can she tell us about the ancient Greek colonists who worshiped her some 2,400 years ago? The fact that so little is known about the marble and limestone statue — one of the few surviving sculptures from the apex of Western art — illustrates the lasting harm brought by looting and the trade in illicit antiquities.

6. Jiri Frel: Scholar, Refugee, Curator…Spy?

In the early 1980s, the antiquities department at the J. Paul Getty Museum was a hotbed of whispered political intrigue. Rumors swirled that the department’s Czech curator, Jiri Frel, was a Communist spy. And many believed the deputy curator, former State Department official Arthur Houghton, was a CIA plant tasked with keeping an eye on Frel’s activities. Frel’s once-classified FBI file, obtained by the authors under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the US Government asked similar questions about Frel in 1971, when an investigation was conducted into his “possible intelligence connections.”

7. The Getty Fights to Keep its Bronze

A week after sending its statue of Aphrodite back to Italy, the Getty was fighting to keep another ancient masterpiece: its priceless bronze statue of an athlete, whose 1964 discovery by Italian fisherman is featured in the opening chapter of Chasing Aphrodite. Here’s our report on the latest in the fight for the Getty  bronze.

8. Houghton on The McClain Doctrine and Crimes of Knowledge

Did American museum officials violate US laws when buying looted antiquities? We attempt to answer that hypothetical using internal Getty memos written by former curator Arthur Houghton, who spelled out the risk of violating the National Stolen Property Act when buying objects with unclear provenance.

9. The Truth about Marion True

When archaeologist Malcolm Bell reviewed Chasing Aphrodite in The Wall Street Journal in July, he largely agreed with our premise — that  American museums fueled the destruction of knowledge by acquiring looted antiquities and using what Bell calls a “fabric of lies” to obscure their complicity in an illicit trade. But Bell’s review took an odd turn when he recommended that former Getty antiquities curator Marion True, who was fired after we revealed her blatant conflicts of interest, be hired “for a major museum position.” We respond.

10. Looted Antiquities at American Museums: An On-Going Crime

For those who might be tempted to think the issues raised in Chasing Aphrodite are behind us, we discuss a recent law review article that argues that continued possession of unprovenanced antiquities (ie most of those in American collections) could be an on-going crime under US law.

BONUS: Finding Loot at Your Local Museum

Marion True once told her museum colleagues: “Experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely — if not certain — that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.” In that same spirit, we gave fellow investigative reporters from around the world a few tips on how to find looted antiquities at their local art museum during the June meeting of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

In 2011, we put that advice to work with revelations about objects in several museum collections. Our New Year’s resolution: to do much more of the same in 2012!

A Call from Robert Hecht: I’m Not a Squealer

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

Robert Hecht

Robert Hecht called the other day to say he’d received the copy of Chasing Aphrodite that we sent to his home on Boulevard La Tour Maubourg in Paris.

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

Hecht is the American antiquities dealer who has dominated the trade for more than 50 years. Italian authorities believe he was also a mastermind of the international blackmarket in looted art — his name appeared at the top of an organization chart of looters, middlemen and dealers that Italian police found in the early 1990s. When Getty antiquities curator Marion True was indicted in 2005, Hecht was named as her co-defendant. His criminal trial in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted art continues today.

Here’s how we describe “the preeminent middleman of the classical antiquities trade” on page 30:

“Since the 1950s, Hecht had sold some of the finest pieces of classical art to emerge on the market. [...] His network of loyal suppliers reached deep into the tombs and ruins of Greece, Turkey, and Italy. [...] His clients included dozens of American and European museums, universities, and private collectors, including J. Paul Getty, whom Hecht had once persuaded to buy an intricately carved Roman bust. For decades, Hecht single-handedly dominated the antiquities market with his brilliance, brutality, and panache. He cited Virgil as readily as the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan, and he was known to break into operatic arias. He often drank to excess and was known to gamble his money away in all-night backgammon games. He tamed competitors with an unpredictable temper and eliminated rivals with anonymous calls to the police. Even those who sold directly to museums gave Hecht a cut of the deal, earning him the nickname ‘Mr. Percentage.'”

Robert Hecht poses in front of the famous looted Greek vase he sold the museum in 1972 for $1 million.

That’s the first of nearly thirty references to Hecht in Chasing Aphrodite. Even so, we felt it was short shrift for a man whose role in the art market is truly legendary. During our interviews and meetings with Hecht over the years, he was always a pleasure to deal with. He is an engaging dinner companion, often charming and talkative while being coy about the key details we were scratching for. Today, at 92 years old, he suffers from some health problems but retains the sharp wit he’s long been known for.

So, what did Hecht think of the book? “It was a well written book except for one lie, which I hope was not your invention,” he said.

Hecht was not disturbed by the allegations that he virtually ran the illicit antiquities trade for 50 years. He wasn’t upset about being called a gambler and an abusive alcoholic, or a participant in a massive tax fraud scheme, or the man largely responsible for the destruction of thousands of archaeological sites. The offending passage was the  reference to Hecht “eliminating rivals with an anonymous call to the police.” We based it on conversations with Italian law enforcement sources. Hecht assures us it is not true.

“The accusation of being a squealer is very serious,” Hecht said. “That is not in my blood.” Hecht said such accusations could be bad for business, which has been slow lately: “A customer might say, oh my god, you’re a spy for the police.” Hecht’s wife Elizabeth got on the phone next to explain that the charge had troubled her husband: “A lot of people we know did do that, but Bob never did. He’s not a rat, and does not wish to be known as such.”

Cult Statue of a Goddess (Aphrodite)

Many in the trade recall how Hecht threatened to expose his rivals in a memoir he was writing. He never followed through on those threats — the unpublished memoir was seized by Italian authorities and is now among the most compelling evidence against him at trial.

But dropping a dime to the police is different. Going back over our notes, there is only one specific case Italian authorities cited in suspecting Hecht of being “a squealer.” It involved the Getty’s 1988 acquisition of the statue of Aphrodite from Hecht’s rival, London dealer Robin Symes.

Shortly after the whopping $18 million acquisition — a record at the time –Interpol Paris received an anonymous tip claiming the Aphrodite had been looted from Morgantina, Sicily. The tipster named the looters and middlemen in the transaction with detail that later proved remarkably accurate. Italian authorities have long suspected the source was Hecht, who lived in Paris at the time and may have been jealous of his rival Symes. But the Italians have no proof of their hunch, and Hecht flatly denies being the tipster.

Given his clear denial, and absent further supporting evidence from our Italian sources, we agreed to correct the record. Robert Hecht is many things, but to the best of our knowledge, he is not a squealer.

We’ve invited Hecht to join us later this month in his hometown of Baltimore, where we’ll be speaking at the Walters Museum on October 29th. He will be in the States that week and did not rule out the possibility of joining us.

Our exchange with Hugh Eakin at the NY Review of Books

The New York Review of Books has published our exchange with Hugh Eakin about his review of Chasing Aphrodite.

For those who haven’t followed the back and forth: Eakin reviewed the book in June’s NYROB. We posted our response here. The NYROB has now published an abbreviated version of that response with a final comment from Eakin.

We took issue with Eakin’s review, which we found “begrudgingly complimentary in several places, but also curiously littered with internal contradictions and a derisive tone that went unsupported by any argument of substance.” Eakin’s contortions appeared to be colored by his competing coverage of the Getty scandal for The New York Times and his sympathy for former Getty curator Marion True, who he had profiled in the New Yorker.

In Eakin’s final comment, he writes: “Let me be clear: there is nothing grudging about my admiration for their extraordinary revelations about the Getty Museum. Contrary to what they suggest, neither I nor any other reporter could compete with them because their information was, as I wrote, all their own.”

He goes on to cite several facts that he calls “contradictory” to our account of the controversial statue of Aphrodite, which was looted in Sicily and never seriously studied during its 22 years at the Getty. Rather than contradict our account (several of the facts he cites were, after all, first reported by us), they illustrate the contradiction between Marion True’s public and private persona. For example, Eakin cites two cases in which True professed to be open to scientific investigation of the statue’s origin. But he omits True’s statement to the Getty’s own attorneys that the purpose of these activities were “to keep the Carabinieri happy that we’re doing something.” (cited on p. 202 of Chasing Aphrodite)

As we said in our response to another True empathizer, sympathy for True’s plight is understandable, but should not blind us to the troubling complexities of her actions.

Eakin concludes his comment by noting, “The leaking of information to journalists places a burden on them to countercheck the claims being made.” We agree wholeheartedly, and spent the better part of five years seeking confirmation of and context for the leaked information we obtained. They offer a complex and multifaceted account that has not been contradicted. We wish Eakin had taken similar care to paint the whole picture.

We welcome your thoughts on the issues raised in this exchange. Feel free to chip in with a comment via the link below.

Podcast: Chasing Aphrodite at the Commonwealth Club

 

 

The Commonwealth Club has posted a podcast from Jason’s July 12 appearance.

The hour-long conversation with host Anne W. Smith, chair of the Club’s Art Forum, touched on a wide range of issues including the origins of the Getty scandal, political pressure we faced while covering it for the LA Times, and lessons to be learned for non-profits and arts organizations. The lively audience of about 60 had great questions.

You can listen to the podcast here.

 

 

Video: The (Slightly Whitewashed) History of the Getty Villa

While we’re off on vacation for two weeks, we thought you’d enjoy this (somewhat whitewashed*) history of the Getty Villa. Produced by the Getty for promotional purposes, it features Stephen Garrett, the Getty’s first museum director, as well as former antiquities curator Marion True, who oversaw the transformation of the original museum into the Getty Villa as we know it today. Sadly, many of the galleries were designed around objects — such as the statue of Aphrodite seen in a diagram dominating the Gods and Goddesses Gallery at minute 7:00 — are no longer part of the Getty’s collection.

*Whitewashed: Missing from the glossy promo video are many of the less flattering facts about the Getty’s history — J. Paul Getty started the museum as a tax dodge, not because of some philanthropic instinct. He left many of his most important works, like the Landsdowne Herakles, outside in the elements for years. The world’s richest museum charges for $15 for parking, despite Getty’s explicit wish that his museum be free of charge for admission and parking. Worst of all: the governing metaphor of the site’s $275 million redesign is that of an archaeological excavation. Unmentioned is the irony that most of the objects on display were illegally ripped from just such an archaeological site. While it pretends to celebrate archaeology, the Villa is in many ways an affront to it.

The Truth about Marion True: Our Response to Malcolm Bell’s review in WSJ

Malcolm Bell’s review of our book Chasing Aphrodite (WSJ, July 1) concurred with our central finding—that American museums fueled the destruction of knowledge by acquiring looted antiquities and using what Bell calls a “fabric of lies” to obscure their complicity in an illicit trade.

The review takes a befuddling turn, however, in Bell’s defense of Marion True, the former Getty antiquities curator at the center of the book.

Bell recommends True be hired for “a major museum position.” He is apparently unbothered by glaring conflicts of interest. As we detail in the book, True twice accepted secret six-figure loans from two of the museum’s most prominent sources of ancient art. It was those loans — not her indictment by Italy for allegedly trafficking in looted art — that ended True’s career, ruined her professional reputation and silenced many of her most ardent supporters. The ethics policy of Bell’s own university bars such conflicts, as would common sense. Yet Bell urges us to ignore them.

Archaeologist Malcolm Bell, who has led the American excavation at Morgantina since the early 1980s.

Elsewhere in the review, Bell says we “undervalue” True’s efforts at reform. In fact, we took pains to research True’s path as a reformer, and our book details many efforts that had not previously been published. For example, under the Freedom of Information Act we obtained a previously unreleased copy of her remarks before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee arguing in favor of import restrictions on Italian antiquities, a position that won her no favor with museum colleagues. Her defense of Italy’s request (which was drafted by Bell) proved influential in the panel’s subsequent decision to grant it.

Bell also claims we “repeatedly cast doubt on her actions and motives.” In his view, after some “unwise” acquisitions, True underwent a “radical change of course” in 1995, and her subsequent reforms did far more good than the harmful practices in her past. While it is tempting to think of the curator’s story as a Pauline tale of conversion, True’s actions are more complex than that, and more troubling. Over her two decades as curator, True often acted as the reformer and the acquisitive curator at the same time. She appears to have adopted both identities, and used them to accomplish her ends as the circumstances required. It is this conflicted behavior that raise questions about True’s motives.

For example, in 1988, just months after completing the acquisition of the clearly looted statue of Aphrodite, True denounced a Cleveland dealer for trying to sell a Cypriot mosaic of similarly dubious origins. In 1993, when True was offered a suspect ancient funerary wreath in a Swiss bank vault, she took the high road, declining the offer because it was “too dangerous.” Yet months later, she changed her mind and recommended the wreath’s purchase.

In 1995, True led the reform of the Getty’s acquisition policy, but a year later violated the spirit of her reform in order to acquire the antiquities collection of her close friends Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman. (It was her colleague and confidant John Papadopoulos who considered the move hypocritical, not us, as Bell claims.)

And in 2001, long after her supposed conversion, True proposed the acquisition of a bronze Poseidon, withholding troubling information about its origins in what Getty attorneys concluded was “materially misleading.”

Are True’s conflicting actions a sign of hypocrisy? Ernest indecision? Remarkable self-blindness? Only True knows for sure, and we leave the question to the reader to decide. (In polls on this site, six of ten readers said they would not hire her, and seven in ten think she was guilty of trafficking in looted antiquities.)

In the end, we share some of Bell’s obvious sympathy for True’s plight. Until recently, she was the only American curator targeted by Italy for a practice that has long been rampant in American museums. And we share his sense of injustice that none of True’s superiors or peers were held to similar account. As we wrote in the book’s epilogue, “True, at once the greatest sinner and the greatest champion of reform, has been made to pay for the crimes of American museums.”

But sympathy should not blind us to the troubling complexities of True’s actions. Bell would do well to heed his own advice when he writes that True’s “bitter experience offers lessons to all parties.” Sadly, in the end it was not True’s conflicted crusade for reform that brought about the dramatic changes we have seen in recent years. It was her downfall.

An hour of Chasing Aphrodite on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny

Jason was interviewed Tuesday on KQED’s Forum, the award-winning public affairs program in San Francisco.

During the hour, Jason and host Michael Krasny touched on a variety of topics, including the fall of Marion True, the fate of so-called “orphans,” the Elgin marbles and Western imperialism. Callers had some interesting questions, including several people wondering what to do with looted objects they have come across.

You can listen to and download the program here.

SAFE interview with co-author Ralph Frammolino

SAFE, the New York nonprofit focused on protecting cultural heritage, has posted its interview with Ralph Frammolino, who gives the behind the scene story of the Getty antiquities scandal and how Chasing Aphrodite came to be.

Listen to it here:   SAFE podcast

Chasing Persephone?

In Sunday’s LA Times, Jason has an article on his recent trip to Aidone, Sicily, where the return of the Getty’s goddess has revived a debate about her true identity: Aphrodite, or Persephone?

The vista of central Sicily from the ruins of Morgantina, where the statue of Aphrodite was illegally excavated in the late 1970s.

“In ancient times, central Sicily was the bread basket of the Western world. Fields of rolling wheat and wildflowers, groves of olive and pomegranate and citrus — even today, fertility seems to spring from the volcanic soils surrounding Mt. Etna as if by divine inspiration.

It was here on the shores of Lake Pergusa that ancient sources say Persephone, the goddess of fertility, was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. She was forced to return there for three months every year, the Greek explanation for the barren months of winter.

Ancient sources say it was while picking flowers along the banks of this lake, a short drive from Morgantina, that Persephone was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld.

When Greek colonists settled the region some 2,500 years ago, they built cult sanctuaries to Persephone and her mother, Demeter. The ruins of Morgantina, the major Greek settlement built here, brim with terra-cotta and stone icons of the two deities.

It seems a fitting new home for the J. Paul Getty Museum’s famous cult statue of a goddess, which many experts now believe represents Persephone, not Aphrodite, as she has long been known.

The Getty goddess in her new home in the archaeological museum in Aidone, Sicily.

Since the Getty’s controversial purchase of the statue in 1988 for $18 million, painstaking investigations by police, curators, academics, journalists, attorneys and private investigators have pieced together the statue’s journey from an illicit excavation in Morgantina in the late 1970s to the Getty Museum.

The Getty returned the goddess to Italy this spring, and a new exhibition showing the statue and other repatriated antiquities from a private American collector and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was inaugurated here last week.

The archaeological museum in Aidone, Sicily

The goddess’ new home is a 17th century Capuchin monastery that now serves as the archaeological museum in Aidone, a hilltop village of about 6,000 residents. The cozy museum, which holds up to 150 visitors at a time, contains the most important objects discovered in the nearby ruins of Morgantina.

During its 22 years at the Getty Museum, the statue was virtually ignored by scholars, thanks largely to the aura of controversy that surrounded it. But as the scandal recedes, new, deeper mysteries about her are finally coming to the fore.

Who is the goddess? Does her slightly awkward marble head really belong atop the massive limestone body? Where precisely was she found? And what can she tell us about the ancient Greek colonists who worshipped her some 2,400 years ago?

The fact that so little is known about the marble and limestone statue — one of the few surviving sculptures from the apex of Western art — illustrates the lasting harm brought by looting and the trade in illicit antiquities. As the goddess was smuggled through the black market, she was stripped of her meaning and rendered a mute object of beauty.

The one thing scholars agree upon is her importance. The goddess’ clinging, windblown drapery is a clear reference to Phidias, the Greek master who a few decades earlier carved the figures that adorned the Parthenon in Greece — many of which now reside in the British Museum.

“It’s one of the very few examples we have from the high Classical period,” said Katerina Greco, a Sicilian archaeological official and leading expert in Greek art who wrote one of the few studies of the statue. “There is nothing like it in Italy.”

Today, central Sicily is an underdeveloped backwater of Europe. Just 17,000 visitors currently see the archaeological museum in Aidone where the statue now sits. At the Getty, about 400,000 saw her every year.

Residents here hope that the statue’s return marks the beginning of a new chapter, one focused on economic development and a deeper understanding of the goddess’ identity and significance.

“The statue didn’t exist by herself, she was made for a specific place and a particular purpose,” said Flavia Zisa, president of Mediterranean archaeology at the University of Kore in nearby Enna.

Most experts today agree the goddess most likely does not represent Aphrodite, as former Getty antiquities curator Marion True surmised when she proposed the statue for acquisition. But because some key fragments are missing from the goddess, scholars remain divided.

Greco has argued that the goddess represents Demeter, noting her matronly build and the remains of a veil covering her hair, a feature most often identified with older women in Greek times. In a forthcoming study, New York University professor Clemente Marconi will expand on his argument that the goddess is Persephone.

A terracotta Persephone on display in the same gallery as the goddess. Many experts now believe the Getty goddess is not Aphrodite.

In an acknowledgement of the changing views of the statue’s identity, Sicilian officials have re-branded the statue as the “goddess” of Morgantina and abandoned earlier references to Venus, the Roman name for Aphrodite.

More definitive answers to the mysteries of the goddess may rest with the looters who dug her up. If the statue’s exact excavation spot were known, archaeologists could re-excavate the area and build a better understanding of her purpose.

But omerta — the Sicilian oath of silence — has long kept that key piece of information a secret. Whispers in Aidone tell of two shepherd brothers who found the statue on the eastern flank of Morgantina where a sanctuary to Demeter and Persephone has been found.

“It is time for them to speak,” said Silvio Raffiotta, a local prosecutor who investigated the statue’s looting in the 1990s. “Now there is no risk.”