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Should the “Getty Bronze” Go Back to Italy?

It’s my job as a blogger to have strong, informed opinions on the topics within my purview. But there’s one crucial issue about which I’ve written extensively without taking a stand—the question of who should possess the hotly contested ancient Greek bronze statue of an athlete, which caused the breakdown in negotiations between the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Italian Culture Ministry.

This is a tough issue, which is why the two sides are at loggerheads. It’s also why I’ve deliberately ducked the question: I can see strong arguments for both sides of this debate. But now I’ve come, with very mixed emotions, to a conclusion.

First, a brief summary of the debate (which I’ve presented in greater detail at the above link): Based on U.S. law, the Getty feels justified keeping the bronze. It has strong basis for its belief that the sculpture was not initially found in Italy (in which case U.S. law would have recognized the Italian claim to ownership) but in international waters.

Francesco Rutelli, Italy’s culture minister, told me when he was in New York that he believes the sculpture was found in Italian waters. But even if it wasn’t, he said, it was smuggled out of his country without an export license, in violation of Italian law. Therefore, Italy considers it stolen and wants it back.

The Getty says that even if it had been illegally exported, Italy had no legal claim to it once it left the country. “Under Italian law,” the Getty asserted in the dossier that it sent to Italy, “any liability for the value of an illegally exported item or fine rests on the exporter, as opposed to the purchaser.”

We may never know with certainty all the facts about the tangled history of the bronze from the moment of its discovery to its ultimate arrival at the Getty. From what I’ve read and heard, I am persuaded by the Getty’s argument that it was likely found in international waters. And I find equally convincing Italy’s argument that the statue was held for a time in Italy and then illegally smuggled out of the country.

In my view, both sides have compelling arguments, and the resolution ultimately hinges on a moral question:

Is it the “right thing” for the Getty to relinquish the bronze, even if it is not legally required to do so?

Morality matters: Museums don’t stand on legal technicalities when it comes to restituting the former possessions of Holocaust victims whose artworks were expropriated or acquired by forced sale.

Here the moral issue is more ambiguous. Unless the bronze was found in Italian waters, the government of Italy never technically “owned” it. But it was likely smuggled out of the country, and questions were raised about its murky past almost from the moment the Getty acquired it.

As an American, I’d like to see this masterpiece stay in the U.S. After all, as the Getty has argued, “the Getty Bronze…has now resided in Los Angeles for a great deal longer than it ever did in Italy” and, as a Greek work, it is not even part of Italy’s cultural heritage.

But legal technicalities aside, I wonder if the Getty would acquire such an object today, if it knew or suspected that it had been illegally smuggled out of another country. Given today’s heightened standards of due diligence and good faith in the acquisition of antiquities, the answer is probably no.

What’s more, even at the time of the Getty’s 1977 purchase of the bronze, there were suspicions that something was fishy about the masterpiece fished from the waters. Tom Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum, made this clear in his CultureGrrl BlogBack last month, and again two days ago in discussions with the Getty’s lawyers, who belatedly sought his recollections from that period. Hoving, who had been involved in an effort, later abandoned, to jointly acquire the bronze with collector J. Paul Getty, has asserted that Getty, concerned about the bronze’s ownership history, had refused to acquire it without written authorization from Italy. The J. Paul Getty Museum, without such written authorization, went ahead with the purchase after Getty’s death.

Given this history, and in light of today’s heightened consciousness of past antiquities transgressions, I’ve reluctantly concluded that the Getty should relinquish the contested bronze, even if this is not required under U.S. law. But in that event, I think that the Getty should get something very substantial in exchange for voluntarily “doing the right thing” by ceding something so precious. Important cultural exchanges, the liberation of Marion True, and closure with Italy would be an excellent start towards developing a mutually beneficial relationship.

And James Wood, the Getty Trust’s incoming president, who comes to this contretemps with clean hands and no bitterness, is the man who may be able to get this done.

an ArtsJournal blog