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From Malibu to Rome: implications for Shelby White

AP has reported that the first four of the items to be returned from the Getty left on Tuesday ("4 Getty items back in Italy", LA Times, October 3, 2007).

One of the four was "a fragment of a wall fresco from the 1st century BC depicting Hercules". This had formed part of the the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection (Getty [deaccessioned] 96.AG.171). As I had commented earlier, this fresco fragment had been purchased from Fritz Bürki who features prominently in The Medici Conspiracy.

Maxwell L. Anderson, who published the fragment in the exhibition catalogue A Passion for Antiquities (no. 126), noted,
"The upper portion of the fresco matches precisely the upper portion of a fresco section in the Shelby White and Leon Levy collection ... and is from the same room, as is catalogue number 125".
The two other fragments alluded to by Anderson are:
a. The White/Levy fragment (Glories of the Past no. 142), also published by Anderson, which is noted as "part of the upper zone of a wall from a Second Style house".

b. An ex-Fleischman fragment that appears to be remaining in the Getty (96.AG.170). This too is listed in The Medici Conspiracy (p. 350). (See also my earlier comments.)
Watson and Todeschini have reported a fourth fragment from the same room that was seized in Geneva from Giacomo Medici. They quote the prosecutor Paolo Ferri, it "would appear to be a twin to another fresco" (i.e. the returning fragment, no. 126).

Maurizio Pellegrini came across evidence of a looted Second Style complex in Medici's documentation (The Medici Conspiracy, pp. 69-71, 119, and plates). It is reported that "at least nine walls of the Pompeian villa were photographed in situ by the tombaroli". (The presence of lapillae in the photographs is suggestive of a structure destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.) What is more, "Two of the walls depicted in the photographs were found in the [Geneva] Freeport, packed in bubble wrap and leaning against a wall, as though they were about to be shipped out".

Watson and Todeschini reflect on the implication of this find:
"It revealed the scale of the traffic in illegally excavated antiquities, and the brutality shown by the tombaroli and those above them in respect to important and beautiful ancient objects, as well as the utter indifference to the archaeological importance of Italy's heritage ... The frescoes ... had been rudely and crudely ripped from their context and sold off to people ("collectors") who might profess to care about archaeological objects but obviously had no interest in the original and proper context."
Who knows if the ex-Getty/Fleischman, present-Getty, present-White, and surfaced-Geneva fragments came from this looted Campanian villa? But they are reported as coming "from the same room" (even if we do not know where that room is located). How is it known that they come "from the same room"? Does (or did) a photograph exist that was taken at the time of its opening?

Can the acquiring of such paintings be considered to be "a very public-spirited thing to do"? (I take the quote from Shelby White's interview in The New Yorker, April 9, 2007.)

Has the time come for Shelby White to make a grand gesture? Imagine the reuniting of the fragment presently in her possession with the one that is now back in Italy.

That would be the public-spirited thing to do.

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