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Today the Greek Ministry of Culture and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced that two priceless works of antiquity will be returned to Greece.
This is the latest in a string of high-profile decisions regarding the repatriation of ancient art. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
NEDA ULABY reporting:
Both objects are flat relief, each thousands of years old. One, from the island of Passos(ph), shows women attending to a goddess. The other is a warrior's imposing grave marker, about five feet high. Carol White is the Getty's acting curator of antiquities.
Ms. CAROL WHITE (Acting Curator of Antiquities, J. Paul Getty Museum): These are unique representations of the kinds of objects that they are. We don't have other pieces like that in our collection.
ULABY: White says each piece's path to the Getty's multimillion-dollar collection was unique. J. Paul Getty picked up the Passos relief in the 1950s. The grave marker was acquired from an art market in early 1990s.
According to a spokeswoman at the Greek embassy in Washington, D.C., one of the pieces was illegally excavated, the other stolen from a warehouse in Paris before being acquired by the Getty.
Ms. WHITE: That's not something I'm going to discuss.
ULABY: Getty curator Carol White did say the decision to return the objects was made after examining evidence, both from the Greek government and the Getty's own files.
Roger Atwood says the Getty could've been facing legal action. He's the author of the book, Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World. Atwood says this isn't the first such incident at the Getty and the museum is not alone.
In February, the Metropolitan Museum of Art reversed its longstanding position and repatriated a 2,500-year-old vase to Italy.
Mr. ROGER ATWOOD (Author, Stealing History): The cynical part of me said they've had to do this in part because of increased legal pressures from the countries of origin and not necessarily because they'd had any great conversions to the values of, you know, the integrity of ancient sites or they have any great love for archaeology, but I think really because they understand that this is getting them into some very serious legal trouble, and that this is starting to affect the public image of museums and the integrity of museums.
ULABY: The Getty is one of the world's wealthiest art institutions, but over the past year, the museum has had to contend with a number of scandals.
One of its former curators is now standing trial for conspiring to receive stolen goods. And the Los Angeles Times reported last month than an internal audit done by the Getty indicated that more than 300 other objects in its collection are also of dubious provenance.
Roger Atwood says he thinks the story of the Getty's acquisitions has only started to be told.
Mr. ATWOOD: A lot of artifacts that wound up in the Getty without any provenance information, without having any record of archaeological excavation, without any documentation by scholarship that hadn't been written about by scholars before they were at Getty. So it is hard not to conclude that it came to the Getty through illicit means.
ULABY: The Greek government is thrilled to be getting the ancient reliefs back, according to Connie Mourtoupalas, who handles cultural issues for the Greek embassy in Washington, D.C. She thinks increased media coverage of looted antiquities has actually led ordinary people to come forward.
Ms. CONNIE MOURTOUPALAS (Greek Embassy): I only got a letter last week from a lady who wants to return two pieces of marble that she picked up during a trip to Greece. She was visiting Mycenae and she decided to just pick up two pieces of marble and take them.
ULABY: No timetable has been set for the return of the two reliefs announced today. The Greek government hopes to retrieve two more pieces from the Getty through ongoing negotiations.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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