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The Battle of the Bronze: Italy’s Argument; Getty’s Rebuttal

UPDATES: Here and Here.

The disturbing breakdown in negotiations between the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Italian Culture Ministry revolves around competing claims for one object—the ancient Greek statue of an athlete—formerly dubbed “The Getty Bronze.” Purchased by the museum in 1977 for $3.95 million, it is now called the “Athlete of Lysippos” by the Italians and described by the Getty as the “Statue of a Victorious Youth” (probably not by Lysippos but by a later Greek sculptor working in the second or third century B.C., according to the Getty).

Nomenclature is the least of the disagreements between the Italians and the Getty. Here’s a rundown of the arguments on both sides of the Battle of the Bronze:

According to an Italian-language article from the ANSA news agency, which the Italian Culture Ministry says accurately represents its position, the ministry asserts that the bronze was stolen and illegally exported. The article points out that that the claim of a fisherman (who died in 2004) that he had found the bronze in “extraterritorial waters…has never been proved.”

Even if it was found in international waters, Ugo Zottin, head of Italy’s Carabinieri for Cultural Property asserts that the statue was illegally exported from Italy, traveling from there to Switzerland and Frankfurt before arriving in the United States. “There are no documents that prove its legal exportation,” Zottin said.

(The 1977 NY Times article by Grace Glueck that reported the Getty’s purchase said that the bronze had been held “for the last six years” by Heinz Herzer, a member of the international dealers consortium Artemis. Herzer was based in Munich, not Frankfurt. A New York spokesman for Artemis, asked at the time of the Getty’s purchase if there might be a “patrimonial challenge” to the bronze, replied, “No country has exercised a claim to it.”)

On Nov. 20, the Getty sent Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli a 20-page memorandum to “clarify why we believe the Getty’s ownership of the Bronze is not subject to challenge.” Some excerpts:

In 1964, the Bronze was pulled up in Italian fishermen’s nets 30-40 miles off the coast of Italy, well outside of Italian territorial waters, which at that time extended only 6 nautical miles from shore. Over the years the fishermen who found the statue have offered to guide governmental archaeologists to the findspot.

The Italian Ministery of Culture has never acted on this offer, despite the possibility that the lower legs and feet of the Bronze possibly could be recovered there. Had the government believed the statue was found in Italian territorial waters, it is unclear why it did not attempt to find the missing portion of the statue for scientific purposes, let alone to support its claim of ownership….

The Italian government alleges that the Bronze should be transferred to the Italian State because it must have been exported from Italy without a proper license sometime before 1972. However, Italian, U.S., and international law do not (and did not at the time of the export) require the transfer of the statue to Italy solely on the basis of possible violations of Italian export regulations, particularly given that the Bronze [being Greek] is not part of the Italian cultural patrimony….

The discovery of the Bronze did not result from the intentional pillaging of an archaeological site within national boundaries….The rationales behind the measures to stem the illicit trade in antiquities are not implicated in this situation.

What does seem clear, among all the brickbats and caveats, is that a cautiously cooperative relationship has degenerated into an adversarial one. It now appears that that the objects that the Getty had hoped to return in exchange for a far-reaching accord, including loans of Italian antiquities, may instead be used as courtroom evidence against the Getty’s former curator, Marion True, now on trial in Italy on charges of trafficking in illegally excavated antiquities:

“The pieces will come to Italy not as a concession on the part of the Getty but as a seizure, the result of a procedure that is part of our legal process,” Maurizio Fiorilli, a lawyer for the Culture Ministry, told Elisabetta Povoledo of the NY Times. Fiorilli indicated that the returned objects would be used to support the charges against True.

Michael Brand, director of the Getty Museum, had invited Minister Rutelli to stop by for a chat during his trip this week to the U.S. But the detailed schedule supplied to CultureGrrl today by the Ministry lists no such visit.

So much for goodwill and cooperation.

an ArtsJournal blog