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Getty to return fresco fragment to Italy

April 7, 2009 |  3:15 pm

Getty fresco

In its latest effort to return wayward ancient artworks to their rightful owners, the J. Paul Getty Museum will send a Roman fresco fragment to Italy. The fragmentary panel, a roughly 36-by-32-inch section of a wall painting made in the third quarter of the 1st century BC, joined the museum's collection in 1996 as a gift of New York collectors Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman.

The museum --- which has returned 39 antiquities to Italy since 2007 -- listed the fragment as "at some risk of forfeiture" and stated its appraised value at the time of donation as $150,000 in a 2005 internal assessment, compiled during an investigation of objects that might have been illegally exported.

But Getty officials didn't decide to repatriate the fragment until about a year ago, when an image of it appeared in a catalog published by the Italian Ministry of Culture, said Karol Wight, the Getty's curator of antiquities. The catalog included a "conjectural reconstruction," she said, suggesting that the fragment and two others previously returned to Italy -- one by the Los Angeles museum, also donated by the Fleischmans; the other by New York collector Shelby White -- were once part of the same artwork.

"We saw the diagram and recognized immediately that the proper thing to do would be to contact the ministry and begin the process of deaccessioning and arranging to return the piece to Italy," Wight said.

The ragged-edged fragment recently removed from display at the Getty Villa portrays a greenish landscape and buildings, seen through two framed windows. Whether it and the two other fresco pieces  actually belong together or were painted in separate, similar scenes will probably remain a mystery. No one knows the original location of the painted wall that might have contained the recovered sections or what the entire artwork depicted, Wight said.

"What the original context of these three pieces was, I have absolutely no idea," she said. "But I know from similar representations, and excavated contexts in places like Pompeii and Herculaneum and other Bay of Naples Roman residences, that these frescoes are sort of fantasy interiors.They have a little bit of an architectural foreground and look through pillars or out windows into a fantasy landscape. That's what this wall appears to be."

Lawrence Fleischman, who died in 1997, and his wife, Barbara, a former Getty trustee, have been major supporters of the museum, but they have been criticized for buying works with little or no record of previous ownership. The Getty acquired about 300 Greek and Roman artworks from the couple as a gift/purchase in 1996, including the two fresco fragments that may have been part of the same wall decoration.  

-- Suzanne Muchnic

Times staff writer Jason Felch contributed to this report.

Image: "Fresco Fragment: Landscapes." Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum 

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