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Cleveland Kerfuffle: Italy Again Engages in Repatriation-by-Press

Francesco Rutelli (second from right) at a New York press conference last June where he announced the supposed signing of an accord with Princeton University

Apparently Francesco Rutelli‘s penchant for pressing for repatriation through the press, rather than through quiet, collegial diplomacy, survives his terminated tenure as Italy’s culture minister.

On Friday, the Associated Press made the unexpected announcement that the Cleveland Museum had agreed to send objects back to Italy:

Italy has reached a verbal agreement with a U.S. museum in Cleveland
for the return of artifacts Rome says have been looted or smuggled out
of the country, a government lawyer said Friday.

Talks between Italy and the Cleveland Museum of Art are near their
final stage, said lawyer Maurizio Fiorilli, who has helped negotiate
the return of Italian antiquities from several other U.S. museums….

But Fiorilli stressed that that deal was still only a verbal one,
although “we are at almost the final phase” of negotiations for a
written accord. “There are no obstacles from our point of view,” the lawyer said.

Dubious from past experience about Italy’s unilaterally announced “agreements,” I immediately e-mailed the museum, but received no reply until just moments ago (below).

Happily, the estimable Steven Litt of the Cleveland Plain Dealer did the fact-checking and reported Saturday that the accord was as much of a surprise to the museum as it was to me:

“No agreement has been reached, nor has the museum
agreed to transfer any objects to Italy,” the museum
said in a statement Friday.

Cindy Fink, the museum’s director of marketing and
communications, declined to comment on Fiorilli’s
description of a verbal agreement.

Apparently, Rutelli had been behind an earlier AP dispatch which, in Litt’s words, had “quoted Rutelli as having said: ‘I immediately gave some good news to the new minister.
Just these past days we have concluded the agreement—which will be formalized by Minister [Sandro] Bondi—with the
Cleveland Museum.'”

Here is the statement that the Cleveland Museum just e-mailed me:

Discussions are continuing
between the Museum and the Italian government, but no agreement of any kind has
been reached, nor has any timetable been set. A spirit of cooperation and
confidentiality has informed the discussions between the Cleveland Museum of
Art and the Italian government to date, and we look forward to this continuing.

This episode is reminiscent of Italy’s supposed agreement with Princeton University, announced by Rutelli in June 2007 (above), but not finalized until October. The premature announcement had the double advantage of enhancing Rutelli’s stature with his countrymen and putting additional pressure on Princeton to close the deal. Similar “agreements” with the Getty Museum were publicized before the real deal was signed.

Is this cultural diplomacy or cultural duplicity? Is Rutelli still trying to act as minister of culture, having lost the post that he clearly relished?

an ArtsJournal blog