US museum gives Italy back looted head of Greek statue

The head of an ancient Greek statue of extraordinary artistic and historical value will finally arrive back in Italy on Friday – almost three decades after being illegally ripped from the ground.

US museum gives Italy back looted head of Greek statue
The looted head of a Greek statue has finally come back to Italy. Photo: Ministero Degli Affari Estari

The stunning statue had been on display at the J.Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles but was eventually discovered to be Italian property after archaeologists identified one of the statue's beard curls among fragments found at a looted site in Sicily.

The unique terracotta head depicts Hades, god of the underworld. He is shown with a bushy blue beard and curly hair, which still bear a good deal of the blue and red pigments with which they were painted 2,400 years ago.

But the mission to bring Hades home has taken years.

“It was great to be able to work with our Sicilian counterparts to identify the provenance of the head,” a spokesperson for the museum told The Local.

“The process of identifying the head took two years and the museum agreed to give it back in 2013. Since then it's been in storage while we waited for instructions from Sicily for its eventual return. Officials finally arrived to pick up the statue this week.”

The head had been on display in Los Angeles since 1985, when the museum acquired it from Belgian businessman – and long time partner of former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy – Maurice Tempelsman, for $500,000 (€460,000).

Templeman sold the piece through successful London art-dealer Robin Symes, who specialized in fencing looted antiques, often of Italian provenance. In January 2005, Symes was sentenced to 21 years in jail (of which he served a mere seven) for trafficking stolen pieces.

On Friday, the statue will finally take pride of place at Enna's Adione museum, a stone's throw from the site where it was originally taken: an outcome which has satisfied Italians on both sides of the Atlantic.

“We owe it above all to the archaeologists who helped identify that ceramic lock of blue hair among the remains of a fraudulent dig site,” said Italy's Consul General in LA, Antonio Verde.

In January 2014, several other pieces of looted art were returned to Enna's Adione museum by the J. Paul Getty museum.

Items included a two-metre Greek marble statue of Venus, which the museum had also bought from Symes in 1988 for an eye-watering $18 million (€16.4 million).

Former curator of the museum, Marion True, was placed on trial in Italy in 2005, but was acquitted after the charges against her expired in 2012.

But the institution is not alone in giving Italy back illegally acquired objects. In recent years pieces have been returned from other high-profile institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

According to one Italian prosecutor, artworks from more than 100,000 raided tombs worth in excess of €460 million have been illegally taken out of the country.

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Study confirms ancient cave art in southern Spain was created by Neanderthals

Neanderthals, long perceived to have been unsophisticated and brutish, really did paint stalagmites in a Spanish cave more than 60,000 years ago, according to a study published on Monday.

Study confirms ancient cave art in southern Spain was created by Neanderthals
Photo: Joao Zilhao/ICREA/AFP

The issue had roiled the paleoarchaeology community ever since the publication of a 2018 paper attributing red ocher pigment found on the stalagmitic dome of Cueva de Ardales (Malaga province) to our extinct “cousin” species.

The dating suggested the art was at least 64,800 years old, made at a time when modern humans did not inhabit the continent.

But the finding was contentious, and “a scientific article said that perhaps these pigments were a natural thing,” a result of iron oxide flow, Francesco d’Errico, co-author of a new paper in the journal PNAS told AFP.

A new analysis revealed the composition and placement of the pigments were not consistent with natural processes — instead, the pigments were applied through splattering and blowing.


What’s more, their texture did not match natural samples taken from the caves, suggesting the pigments came from an external source.

More detailed dating showed that the pigments were applied at different points in time, separated by more than ten thousand years.This “supports the hypothesis that the Neanderthals came on several occasions, over several thousand years, to mark the cave with pigments,” said d’Errico, of the University of Bordeaux.

It is difficult to compare the Neanderthal “art” to wall paintings made by prehistoric modern humans, such as those found in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave of France, more 30,000 years old.

But the new finding adds to increasing evidence that Neanderthals, whose lineage went extinct around 40,000 years ago, were not the boorish relatives of Homo sapiens they were long portrayed to be.

The cave-paintings found in three caves in Spain, one of them in Ardales, are throught to have been created between 43,000 and 65,000 years ago, 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

The team wrote that the pigments are not “art” in the narrow sense of the word “but rather the result of graphic behaviors intent on perpetuating the symbolic significance of a space.”

The cave formations “played a fundamental role in the symbolic systems of some Neanderthal communities,” though what those symbols meant remains a mystery for now.