In a move signaling its return to collecting Mediterranean antiquities -- with tight restrictions -- the J. Paul Getty Museum has acquired a late 3rd century Roman sarcophagus that depicts a wine-making festival.
One of only six similarly decorated ancient funerary monuments known to exist, the elaborately carved marble work will go on display at the Getty Villa on June 12.
The sarcophagus -- which portrays a panorama of curly-haired cupids harvesting and stomping grapes, bordered by a pair of lion heads -- is the first major piece to be added to the antiquities collection since the Getty and many other museums became embroiled in an international controversy about ancient artworks thought to have been illegally exported, said Karol Wight, the Getty's senior curator of antiquities.
The Getty has returned 39 pieces to Italy over the last year and will send back a particularly prized, monumental cult figure in 2010 to fulfill an agreement with Italian authorities. So far, pieces from the museum's collection have been pulled out of storage to fill gaps, Wight said. But the sarcophagus will be the centerpiece of a new installation about the production and consumption of wine in ancient times.
The recent purchase -- made at an undisclosed price from an unidentified private collection in London -- adheres to a Getty policy adopted in 2006 that requires each newly acquired antiquity to have a clear ownership history dating to 1970, when an international agreement prohibited traffic in looted art.
The sarcophagus can be tracked to 1808 at the Villa Rondinini in Rome. A French ambassador, François de Corcelle, bought the marble in 1852. It was kept in his family in France until 1994, when it was purchased at auction by the collector who recently sold it to the Getty through an American dealer.
"It's a wonderful addition to our collection," Wight said, "and a really fun piece that will be great for family groups and educational programs." Although the sarcophagus was used as a watering trough for horses at some point during its residence in France, it will help the museum to explain themes of life and death and the vital place of wine in Roman culture, she said.