Prosecutors in the trial of a former J. Paul Getty Museum curator retraced the steps of an ancient statue they say was smuggled out of the country, and is now one of the most significant pieces in a dispute between Italy and the Los Angeles museum.
The prosecution presented testimony and documents reconstructing the route that the fifth century B.C. statue of the goddess Aphrodite took from Sicily to the Getty, which bought the piece for $18 million in 1988.
Italy has been cracking down on antiquities trafficking and campaigning to recover artifacts it contends were stolen or illegally exported from the country and sold to European and U.S. museums.
As part of these efforts, former Getty curator Marion True and American art dealer Robert Hecht are on trial in Rome, accused of knowingly trafficking in stolen artifacts. They deny wrongdoing. Their trial resumed Wednesday after a lengthy summer break.
Fausto Guarnieri, a former police officer, testified Wednesday that he first received anonymous tips in the late 1980s of the existence of a secret dig at Morgantina - the Greek settlement in Sicily where the "Venere di Morgantina" is said to have been found.
The tips came from illegal diggers angered that rival raiders had sold precious statues found at the site for a very low price, he said.
At the same time, as they prepared to acquire the Venus, Getty officials wrote letters to Italian authorities, inquiring if the statue had been stolen.
Guarnieri said that no connection was made then between the Venus and Morgantina, and authorities responded that the statue was not on their lists of stolen artifacts, but that they would investigate. Only a 1997 analysis of the statue confirmed it was made out of the same stone as fragments found in the Morgantina illegal dig, he said.
Prosecutor Paolo Ferri then showed the court documents from subsequent investigations that reconstructed the statue's voyage.
A 1986 receipt made out by an Italian who claimed to own the statue says it was sold in Switzerland to a London-based dealer for $400,000 after "it had been in my family's possession since 1939."
Ferri suggested the ownership claim was fake, reminding the judges that 1939 was the year Italy passed a law making all antiquities found in the country property of the state.
Ferri also showed documents that accompanied the statue as it traveled from Switzerland to Los Angeles through London, noting that the weight of the crates carrying it increased dramatically with each step. He said this was an indication that the statue was sold in pieces at different stages, a technique smugglers use to get more money out of buyers.
Lawyers for True have always maintained that their client acquired this and other disputed pieces in good faith, without knowing of their supposed illegal origin. Defense lawyer Francesco Isolabella stressed that point while cross-examining Guarnieri on Wednesday, repeatedly questioning how Italian authorities followed up on the Getty's original inquiries about the statue.
"From (1988 to 1997) they didn't do anything," Isolabella later told reporters. "They didn't ask for the Venus back, they never asked questions on its origin."
The fact that the Getty had made inquiries on the artifact and later made it available for the 1997 analysis was proof of the museum's good faith.
True and Hecht were not in court Wednesday. Their lawyers said they could show up for the next session, set for Nov. 10, and would be available to take the stand.
The 7-foot statue of Aphrodite is only one of dozens of artifacts Italy wants returned from the Getty. Negotiations between the museum and the Italian Culture Ministry have so far failed to yield a deal.
Last month, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts returned 13 disputed ancient artifacts to Italy in exchange for loans of other treasures. Earlier this year, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art signed a similar deal for the return of 21 pieces, including a collection of Greek silverware from Morgantina.