By Paul La Rosa
You never know where you’ll find a great true crime story.
I was reminded of this in September 2019 when I was on vacation in Sicily. I was touring a small museum in an even smaller town when a true crime story with ties to Jacqueline Onassis, a disgraced London arts dealer, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, suddenly appeared before me.
I was in the town of Aidone when museum tour leader Serena Raffiotta—half-jokingly referred to by some as “the Sicilian Indiana Jones”—stopped in front of a terracotta head of the Greek god Hades from 300-400 BC. Normally, I would have walked right by this type of piece with thoughts like, ‘yeah, it’s old….isn’t that cool….I wonder if there’s anything interesting in the gift shop.”
But Serena wasn’t having it. Her eyes were twinkling and she seemed especially animated. She told us that the bust we were looking at had not always been in that museum and she asked us to examine it closely.
Upon first glance, the Hades head is what you’d expect—a pretty standard-looking Greek guy who looks like an ancestor of Cat Stevens, complete with a beard full of terracotta curly-cues. (Stevens BTW is of Greek origin and his actual name--before it was Cat Stevens and then Yusuf Islam—was Steven Demetre Georgiou.)
With Serena’s guidance, we focused in on the beard; she asked us to notice that it seemed to be missing a small piece. Hades’ beard, with its bluish tint, was distinctive and sure enough, it seemed to be missing one of its curls.
Serena told us that, years before, when she had no idea where this Hades head was or even if it still existed, she’d discovered a blue terracotta curly cue and a few other fragments in the museum’s collection and had published a photo of them in a book.
Enter Lucia Ferruzza, another archaeologist half a world away in Los Angeles. Ferruzza was a museum employee at the Getty, had spent time in Sicily, knew Serena and happened to read her book. The missing curly-cue stuck in her mind.
Ferruzza knew that the Getty had a terracotta head of Hades in its collection that seemed to be missing a little piece of its beard. It looked to Ferruzza that the terracotta curly cue Serena had found was that missing piece.
That discovery led to a lengthy legal investigation—involving Italy’s Arts Crime Squad—that sought to answer the question of how the priceless Hades head—apparently from Sicily—had landed in the Getty’s collection.
This is where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis enters the story. It turned out that Jackie O’s last boyfriend—the wealthy Maurice Templesman, who was at Jackie’s side when she passed away, was a major arts collector in New York.
The Hades bust had been in Tempelsman’s private collection; he had bought it in early ‘80s from a then well-known London arts dealer by the name of Robin Symes. Symes’ career later fell apart after he was implicated in an international ring of criminals who looted treasures from every corner of the globe. It turns out the Hades head was one of those stolen pieces. Symes had sold it to Templesman who in turn sold it to the Getty for $530,000.
Tracing the provenance of the Hades head, investigators learned it had been illegally excavated by looters back in the late 1970s near the Sicilian town of Morgantina, a site once studied by Claire Lyons. The ruins there date back to the first century. Back in the 1970’s, they were not well guarded and thieves literally made off in the night with valuable artifacts like, you guessed it, that Hades head.
Years went by, Italian authorities had to provide proof but, eventually, faced with irrefutable evidence that the Hades’ head had been stolen, Getty officials agreed to send the bust back where it belonged. It was returned to the Museo Archeologico di Aidone on January 29, 2016.
And that’s where I happened upon it in September, 2019 when it was shown to my tour group by Serena Raffiotta. As she recounted the story of the role she played in getting this priceless artifact back to her country, she looked as proud as any Cold Case detective. She didn’t quite say ‘case closed’ but her proud face said it all.
Copyright 2019 by Paul La Rosa. All Rights Reserved.
Paul La Rosa has worked in broadcast television for CBS News, mostly as a producer for the newsmagazine “48 Hours.” He’s won four national Emmys, one of them a Primetime Emmy for the highly-praised CBS documentary “9/11.” LaRosa was one of the producers of that documentary and in 2003 he was awarded a Peabody Award, a DuPont Award, a Christopher Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. He’s also won two Gracie Awards and a New York Press Club Award for different segments. He is also the author of five books.