Anyone who visits the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, the great faux- Roman summer house built for a famously eccentric oil billionaire on the shores of the Pacific, can't help but notice the imposing limestone statue of Aphrodite that forms the centrepiece of a ground- floor room called Gods and Goddesses. The 2.3-metre piece - like so much in Hollywood, just a little larger than life - is the pride of the museum. Dating to the 5th century BC, it is frequently described as the greatest Greek statue in the United States. But it is not going to stay that way for much longer. Thanks to a deal just cut between the Getty curators and the Italian government, a deal preceded by two years of scandal, criminal prosecutions and extraordinary diplomatic wrangling, Aphrodite will be one of 40 prestigious pieces heading back to the old continent. The Italians have claimed all along that Aphrodite was stolen - first from the Sicilian archeological site of Morgantina, repository of countless Greek art treasures, many now looted, and then by means of a circuitous route of antiquities dealers and middlemen operating in the shadows of the international art trade.
The Getty made no admission of wrongdoing in the text of the agreement - reached just hours before a 31 July deadline imposed by the Italians - but the deal was unmistakably a huge climbdown for an institution desperate to rid itself of the stench of criminality and scandal and establish a new reputation as a benevolent, if still extraordinarily rich and powerful, force in the international art market.
The Italians had originally asked for the return of 46 pieces, although they let it be known they had documentation suggesting that as many as 400 artworks were of suspect origin. According to internal Getty documents leaked to The Los Angeles Times two years ago, the Getty's own lawyers identified 82 pieces, including 54 classified as masterpieces, that were of questionable origin and risked being investigated.
A first attempt at an agreement took place in November, when the Getty unilaterally offered up 26 pieces to the Italian government. The museum clearly hoped this would be enough to placate the Italians, but it was not, and negotiations broke down shortly afterwards. Culture ministry lawyers described the 26 pieces not as a concession by the Getty but a seizure - "part of our legal process", according to a lawyer, Maurizio Fiorilli.
Francesco Rutelli, Italy's Culture Minister, who knows a thing or two about stolen art, having spent years as the mayor of Rome, said he would not back down. He threatened to take out "cultural sanctions" against the Getty - essentially, refusing to lend the museum anything or cooperate in any way - if the museum did not cough up some more of its treasures.
The Italians had an extra weapon in their armoury in the form of Marion True, the former curator of antiquities at the Getty who has been on trial in Rome for the past several months on charges of receiving stolen artworks. She recommended purchase of 18 of the 40 pieces now being returned. For good measure, just to turn the screws a little tighter, the Italians also slapped Ms True with a civil suit.
The Getty railed and yelped and complained, but in the end, with emails and faxes flying right up to the deadline, the museum's management essentially folded. This, a triumphant Mr Rutelli told a news conference in Rome, was "a victory for cultural diplomacy and of shared ethical values ... a historic agreement that creates an irreversible precedent. "At the same time the noose around the art traffickers grows ever tighter."
Michael Brand, the Getty's museum director, sounded distinctly rueful about what he was about to lose when he made his own public statement. "It will change the status [of the museum]," he said. "We're losing great masterpieces. In other cases we're losing smaller, less aesthetically important items, but which might be a linchpin of a particular display. …