The star attraction of the archaeological museum in this sleepy backwater in central Sicily actually isn’t here.
Instead, this ancient treasure, a giant statue from the fifth century B.C. usually identified as the goddess Aphrodite, holds court thousands of miles away, at the J. Paul Getty Museum’s antiquities villa in California.
In the Aidone Archaeological Museum, which houses artifacts from a nearby dig at an ancient Greek settlement called Morgantina, visitors settle for a large poster at the entrance depicting the statue and announcing a national campaign to bring it back.
“This is her rightful place,” said Nicola Leanza, the culture minister for Sicily, who, like many others, argues that the goddess was illegally excavated from Morgantina.
The Getty, which bought the statue in 1988 for $18 million, isn’t so sure.
For nearly two decades it fended off the Italian government’s sporadic claims to the sculpture. But as the demands grew more pressing, the Getty acknowledged that there might be “problems” attached to the acquisition. In November it announced that it would study the object and reach a decision on whether to hand it over within a year.
“We are on target to achieve that objective,” Ron Hartwig, a Getty spokesman, said in an e-mail message. (The museum has already offered to transfer title to the statue.)
Yet the people of Aidone are tired of waiting. For this town the statue has become a blazing symbol of Italy’s legal and moral battle against foreign museums and private collectors that bought archaeological artifacts with hazy backgrounds, plundering the nation of its heritage.
For decades the Sicilian countryside has been a prime target for tomb robbers and a network of compliant traders.
“Morgantina was sacked for too long,” said Giovanni Calafiore, president of the Aidone chapter of an amateur archaeology association, who organized a bring-back-the-Aphrodite protest march in December. “Now we’re fighting to get back what’s rightfully ours.”
Beatrice Basile, the art superintendent for the province of Enna, which includes Morgantina, said the campaign to win back the statue had had a profound psychological impact on the townspeople.
“It’s given an identity to the people in Aidone, who feel very strongly that this is a restitution that in some way would compensate for a collective loss to their society,” she said.
Even though the statue is still in the Getty Museum’s villa in Pacific Palisades, Calif., this newfound self-awareness has already had a practical effect. Sicilians here are now far more willing to patrol the countryside to crack down on clandestine digs and to help investigators in individual cases, Ms. Basile said.
“This is the miracle of the Aphrodite,” she added.
The statue, 7 ½ feet tall with a limestone torso and marble head and limbs, is also among the contested pieces cited in the case against Marion True, the Getty’s former curator of antiquities, who is being tried in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted art. She denies any wrongdoing.
The museum is also negotiating with Italian officials over 51 other artifacts in its collection.
The Getty bought the Aphrodite from a London dealer, Robin Symes. A handwritten bill of sale dated March 18, 1986, indicates that Mr. Symes bought a fifth-century B.C. “acrolith statue of a draped woman” from Renzo Canavesi, then a currency-exchange operator in Chiasso, Switzerland.
A postscript in the bill of sale said the statue had belonged to Mr. Canavesi’s family since 1939, the year that a law was passed in Italy making it illegal to export any archaeological artifact from the country without government permission.
In 2001 Mr. Canavesi was tried in Italy on charges of illegal trafficking involving the Aphrodite. But on appeal his conviction was thrown out because the statute of limitations had expired, according to Italian documents. In August 1987, before buying the artifact, the Getty contacted the Italian culture ministry through a lawyer seeking information on the authenticity and provenance of a statue of Aphrodite. The museum later said the ministry told the lawyer that Italy had no information about the statue.
In July 1988 Ms. True officially informed the culture ministry that the Getty board had approved the acquisition. She invited the Italians to contact the museum with “any information on the recent history of this object that you believe might be important to us.”
Italian investigators had already redoubled their efforts to track down the statue’s origins.
Fausto Guarnieri, chief investigator of the Italian special art-theft squad in the 1980s, said in an interview that in the fall of 1987 some disgruntled tomb robbers led him to a spot in Morgantina and told him that the statue’s marble head had been found there.
“At the time there was a rumor that the statue had been shipped to Nice with a cargo of cereal, and then smuggled into Switzerland,” Mr. Guarnieri recalled.
Rumors also flew that the statue had been offered to several Sicilian antiquities traders before it left Italy. A 1988 article in Connoisseur magazine identified Orazio Di Simone, a Sicilian antiquities dealer living in Switzerland, as the suspected smuggler.
Francesco Tagliaferri, a lawyer defending Mr. Di Simone in an unrelated looted-antiquities case that began in Rome in May, said his client denied involvement with the statue. “That’s a fairy tale, just rumors,” he said.
Around 1988, Mr. Guarnieri said, the Italian authorities questioned two Sicilian brothers, Mr. Di Simone and a Sicilian who was believed to traffic in looted art, accusing them of looting and exporting the statue. But the case never went to trial for lack of evidence.
Mr. Symes has never been charged in Italy for his role in the sale of the statue.
Aidone citizens hope scientific studies will help fill in the gaps that court evidence has not, and then convince the Getty that the artifact was looted in Sicily. A decade ago Rosario Alaimo, a geochemistry professor at the University of Palermo, was asked to compare samples of the limestone of the Getty statue with samples taken from a statue 200 years younger in the Aidone museum that had been excavated in Morgantina.
“We concluded that both statues were made of material that came from the same geological formation,” quarried in southeastern Sicily, near Ragusa, said Professor Alaimo, who presented his findings at a Getty workshop on the Aphrodite in May. Both statues are Sicilian, he said in a telephone interview. “That is the most probable hypothesis.”
Malcolm Bell III, a University of Virginia professor who directs excavations at Morgantina, said he neither embraced nor rejected the idea that the Aphrodite came from that site.
“I’ve talked to people who ought to know, and they’ve never said anything about finding the statue,” he said in an interview in Aidone. “What I can say is that it was made by an extremely talented sculptor, and if we knew where it had been found, we’d know a lot about the artistic expression of the fifth century B.C.”
In the meantime, archaeologists continue their painstaking dig at Morgantina, slowly bringing to light a Greek city that fell to the Romans in 211 B.C. This spring work progressed on a bath complex at the site from the third century B.C.
Sandra K. Lucore, who is overseeing the baths excavation, describes Morgantina as a snapshot of an experimental period in Sicilian history “when technology and ideas came together to spawn some very innovative solutions,” she said.
“You get the sense here that they were really thinking on their feet, using materials in a new way,” she said in an interview at the site. “The baths are an excellent example of this organic development.”
These days Morgantina is relatively well guarded. Custodians sleep there at night, and two years ago a new metal fence was built around the site’s perimeter.
In Aidone, meanwhile, the museum, which reopened in March after a three-year restoration, is a focus of civic pride. When a national news broadcast erroneously reported in April that the Aphrodite’s return was imminent, hundreds of residents marched boisterously to the museum’s doors.
“We really weren’t used to that,” Maria Locanda, a custodian there, said.
Local pride was also boosted by an accord brokered last year by the Italian government with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Under the pact, the Met also transferred title to a set of 16 silver pieces from the third century B.C. that Italy said were illegally excavated from Morgantina.
The pieces will remain at the Met until January 2010, then travel to the Aidone museum. Dr. Basile said the silver would be exhibited in a showcase designed especially for it.
And there is more than enough room for the larger-than-life-size Aphrodite, she added hopefully.
Sicilian officials argue that a return of the Aphrodite could be a boon to the region’s economy. While the area’s culinary traditions, sandy shores and crystalline waters have long lured international tourists, they say, important cultural attractions also boost visitor numbers.
“Our model for growth is the management and development of our cultural past, and we’re focusing on Sicily as a whole,” Mr. Leanza, the Sicilian culture minister, said.
He cited the Roman villa of Casale in Piazza Armerina, about 10 miles from Aidone, which he said draws 700,000 people each year.
“The Aphrodite will bring wealth to the territory,” he said. “She is a source of well-being we have to exploit. This is our real wealth.”
“The idea is that the entire island is a museum,” he said. “Few museums in the world can match that potential.”