Italian court orders seizure of Getty bronze

Getty bronzeAn appeals court in Pesaro, Italy, has ruled that the Greek bronze known as the Victorious Youth should be confiscated from the Getty Museum in Malibu and returned to Italy. This ruling comes as a surprise and not just to the Getty. Previous rulings on the ownership of the statue have all come down on the side of the Getty due to the nebulous circumstances of the bronze’s discovery and sale.

The life-size statue was fished out of the Adriatic off the coast of Fano in 1964. The fishermen never declared it to customs officials as required by law. Instead they buried it in a cabbage patch before selling it to Italian middlemen that same year for a measly $5,600. They hid it in a priest’s bathtub then smuggled it out of the country into the hands of dealer Elie Borowski in Switzerland, who in turn sold it to the Artemis Consortium. The Getty bought it 13 years later for $3.9 million.

The statue is thought to be from the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., possibly from the workshop of the great Greek sculptor Lyssipos, who was Alexander the Great’s court sculptor and the teacher of Chares of Lindos, the artist who built the Colossus of Rhodes. It is one of very few extant Greek bronzes. Most of what we have are Roman copies.

Italian prosecutors have tried to retrieve it for 40 plus years. In 1966 they prosecuted the Italian middlemen and the priest. They were convicted but their convictions were reversed on appeal in 1970 due to insufficient evidence. The statue itself was still in the shadowy antiquities underground at this point, so the prosecution didn’t even have stolen goods as evidence.

Most recently a case in 2007 prosecuted by Francesco Rutelli (who also prosecuted today’s case) was dismissed by the same Pesaro court who ruled in his favor today. It was a different judge though, and he ruled that the statute of limitations had expired, that since the fishermen were long dead there was no longer anyone to prosecute, and that the Getty had purchased the bronze in good faith.

So what changed, you asked? Some recent news cast serious doubt on the Getty’s good faith. An article in the LA Times last month pointed to a shady series of correspondence over the purchase of the bronse.

“It is clearly understood by us that no commitment is to be made by me on your behalf for the Greek Bronze until certain legal questions are clarified,” wrote Met director Thomas Hoving to Getty in a June 1973 letter. Hoving promised that the Met’s attorneys would talk with Italian officials to clarify the circumstances under which the statue had left Italy and whether the Italians were still pursuing a legal claim, records show.

The Met’s antiquities curator, Dietrich von Bothmer, raised legal concerns of his own, warning Hoving that the 1970 acquittal “does not permit the legal conclusion that the statue was . . . legally exported from Italy.”

In his acquisition proposal to the Met’s board, Von Bothmer wrote, “I recommend that legal opinions be solicited as to the possibility that a foreign government may at a later time, especially after publication of the statue, claim it as ‘artistic patrimony.’ “

The deal fell through for reasons neither the Met nor the Getty will discuss. After John Paul Getty died in 1976, however, the museum bought the statue for more than JP had offered and without the legal assurances from the Italian government that JP had required. Instead they just took the word of the dealers’ lawyers, which, let’s face it, is worth pretty much nothing.

Anyway, nasty horsetrading shenanigans aside, the legal questions surrounding the find remain thorny and the precedent of several failed cases is on the Getty’s side. The Getty said in a statement that they would pursue the case to Italy’s highest court. Given the glacial pace of the Italian legal system, the Victorious Youth won’t be leaving the Getty Villa in Malibu any time soon.

4 thoughts on “Italian court orders seizure of Getty bronze

  1. Something that has always bothered me with some of the claims that Italy has made regarding items they want repatriated from the Getty is the fact many of those selfsame antiquities are not even Etruscan/Roman/Italian.

    In this instance why isn’t Greece clamouring for the statue rather than Italy. I realise it was trawled from off Italy’s coast. They seem to be playing the playground game of Finders/Keepers rather than invoking national heritage.

    1. Greece isn’t clamouring for it because it wasn’t illegally smuggled out of its national borders in 1964. The claim here is not one of heritage ownership (the Romans touched it once therefore it belongs to Italy) or of finders/keepers (Italian fishermen touched it therefore it belongs to Italy), but rather that it was exported out of the state of Italy against Italian law.

      That’s the case with the 40 items the Getty returned to Italy in 2008, the Sarpedon krater the Met returned last year, the dozens of other looted objects returned from large private collections over the past few years.

      The aim here is not to reclaim objects scattered by invasion, Grand Tour purchases or cultural imperialism but to affirmatively prosecute laws against removal of antiquities that have been on the books in Italy since Mussolini’s day. It’s the same as any law against theft and fencing stolen goods, only in this case the goods are really, really old.

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