Italy Presses Its Fight for a Statue at the Getty
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
PESARO, Italy — One summer day in 1964 a fishing trawler from Fano, a small seaside town a few miles south of this provincial capital on the Adriatic, unexpectedly dredged up a life-size bronze statue from the ocean’s depths. Most likely fashioned in ancient Greece and lost at sea after being looted by Romans, the sculpture is now a centerpiece of the Getty Villa, part of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
If Italian prosecutors have their way, however, its time in America could soon be at an end.
The statue, called “Victorious Youth” in the Getty catalog but better known as the Getty Bronze (after the museum’s founder), depicts an athlete crowned with an olive wreath. It was originally thought by some archaeologists to be the work of Lysippos, the renowned sculptor of the fourth century B.C., though more recent studies date it to the second or third century B.C. It is widely held to be one of the finest original Greek bronzes to have survived from the classical era (most bronzes from that time are Roman copies), which helps explain why it has been at the heart of a complex legal dispute for decades.
The latest round was fought on Friday, in a court here, where Italian prosecutors and lawyers for the Getty presented closing arguments in a case dealing with one key question: Was the museum acting in good faith when it purchased the statue for a little less than $4 million in 1977?
The Italians assert that the bronze was smuggled out of Italy (after being buried in a cabbage patch and later hidden by a priest) without the proper export papers, and that the museum was willfully negligent in carrying out due diligence before buying the work.
The Getty counters that it bought the statue through legal channels and with clear title. “Consistent documentation suggests that the sale was done in good faith because the seller offered sufficient guarantees to overcome every doubt,” said Alfredo Gaito, one of the Getty’s lawyers.
The judge in Pesaro, Lorena Mussoni, must now decide this issue and whether to order the seizure of the statue, which could lead to a formal request to American authorities.
Wrangling over its ownership nearly prevented a 2007 agreement between the Italian culture minister and the Getty Museum for the return of 40 artifacts that the Italians believed were looted. The deal was signed only after both sides agreed to set the question of the statue aside.
Italy has campaigned aggressively in recent years against foreign collectors, both individuals and institutions, that it argues have purchased artifacts with questionable provenances. In 2006 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reached an accord with Italy over the return of artifacts with an uncertain past, and deals with museums in Boston; Princeton, N.J.; and Cleveland followed.
The campaign seems to be paying off in other ways too, said Gen. Giovanni Nistri, the leader of the Carabinieri’s specialized art theft squad. Speaking at a news conference in Rome on Thursday, General Nistri said that 2009 “saw a notable decrease in tomb raiding.”
Even so, he added, last year investigators recovered nearly 40,000 archaeological artifacts, mostly coins, many of them being offered for sale on the Internet.
Greater global awareness about the looting of archaeologically rich countries has also helped spur international cooperation, and Italian investigators on Thursday singled out United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in New York for their assistance in recovering several artifacts, tracked down before they could be sold at auction.
Two of those objects — a first-century fresco from a Roman villa in the city of Boscoreale, which was stolen from a warehouse in Pompeii, and a Corinthian krater that a Japanese museum had put up for auction at Christie’s in New York — were presented at the news conference. They were returned to Italy last year, as were more than 100 artifacts confiscated by the Swiss government from a Zurich man best known for having restored the 2,500-year-old Euphronios krater, which was once the centerpiece of the Met’s antiquities collection. That piece, which the Met bought in 1972, was formally returned to Italy in 2008; although Euphronios was Greek, Italian experts argued that most of his known works had been unearthed in Etruscan tombs near Rome.
In the case of “Victorious Youth,” however, the Getty Museum insists that there is no real link between the Greek bronze — which the fishermen who found it said that they had netted in international waters, and which only briefly passed through Fano before being spirited abroad — and Italy’s cultural heritage.
But locals in Fano argue otherwise.
“The statue and its discovery has become part of our culture and folklore,” said the town’s mayor, Stefano Aguzzi, in an interview. “It’s clear we have a claim to it.”
And the fact that Lysippos’s authorship has been called into question has done little to dampen enthusiasm here. A city newspaper, a local sailing race and several small businesses are all named for the Greek sculptor.
Recently, the local chapter of the Lions Club financed the creation of a larger-than-life copy of the bronze, which has been erected at the entrance to the port.
On Friday a tiny group of protesters picketed in front of the Pesaro courthouse, demanding the statue’s return.
J. Paul Getty, the multimillionaire, fell for the statue when he first saw it in the early 1970s, and weighed buying it jointly with the Met. But according to a written account byThomas Hoving, at the time the Met’s director (he died in December), Getty had concerns about the legal status of the bronze. The Getty museum bought it the year after Getty died.
Getting the statue back is “a question of justice,” said Alberto Berardi of Cento Città, the regional association that has spearheaded the restitution campaign. “No museum in the world should exhibit works whose provenance is clearly illegal.”
The judge’s ruling is expected this month. Even if she were to order the seizure of the statue, the ruling would have to be enforced in the United States. Certainly the statue’s return “will not be automatic,” Emanuele Rimini, another Getty lawyer, said on Friday.