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Never-Ending Saga of “The Getty Bronze”: Italian Criminal Judge Rules It Belongs to Italy

In the latest development in a tangled legal dispute that will probably outlive us all, the J. Paul Getty Trust announced that it plans to file an appeal with Italy’s Court of Cassation of a June 8 Italian criminal court decision calling for the California museum to relinquish its celebrated statue, “The Victorious Youth” (aka “the Getty Bronze”).

For now, it’s the centerpiece of the gallery devoted to “The Hellenistic World,” which is a highlight of the sweeping reconception and reinstallation of the Getty Villa, which reopened on Apr. 18:

The Getty Villa’s “Hellenistic World” gallery
Photo: © J. Paul Getty Trust

Judge Giacomo Gasparini of the Court for the Preliminary Investigations, Pesaro, ruled that the bronze was “stolen,” because it was found in Italian territorial waters, loaded onto a fishing boat from Italy and illegally exported from Italy.

The Getty has always asserted that the fishing boat was in international waters, not Italian waters. Either way, it seems likely that it was illegally smuggled out of Italy, which has strict retentionist laws about cultural property within its borders.

In its announcement reacting to the latest decision, the museum dusted off a favorite argument of anti-repatriationist James Cuno, who held this view long before he became the Getty Trust’s president: The Getty Bronze, in the press release’s words, “is not part of Italy’s extraordinary cultural heritage. Accidental discovery by Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object.”

This hearkens back to Cuno’s dubious argument in his 2008 book, “Who Owns Antiquity?”, that modern nations have no right to “legislate the protection of and access to whatever they consider to be their cultural property….Antiquities are ancient artifacts of times and cultures long preceding the history of the modern nation-state. And in all but a very few cases, they have no obvious relation to that state other than the accident of geography: they happen to have been found within its modern borders.”

James Cuno at the Getty Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s a more detailed statement regarding the litigation situation that Ron Hartwig, the Getty Trust’s soon-to-retire vice president of communications, sent me today, in response to my queries:

After having been denied the opportunity to present relevant witnesses to testify in the previous cases, and having to appeal to the Italian Constitutional Court to gain such right about 40 years after its purchase of the object, the Getty presented evidence that the Getty Bronze was acquired legally after thorough research and careful due diligence. The Getty presented all of the surviving witnesses involved in the acquisition and provided additional evidence to the judge relating to the underlying transaction.

Nevertheless, the current decision relies on testimony provided by individuals in related criminal investigations, without the presence of counsel, and certain questionable statements by [former Metropolitan Museum director] Thomas Hoving to Italian authorities in 2007. [More on the late Hoving, below.]

The Getty did not have the opportunity to cross examine the witnesses and the statements were simply taken as true by the judge, even though the Getty presented evidence to the contrary in the Pesaro proceeding. Italy’s assertion of ownership of the object relies on a single decision by a minor Sicilian court that has been criticized by scholars. This same decision was considered irrelevant 50 years ago by the Italian Court of Cassation in its prior decision pertaining to the object, when it ruled there was no evidence that the statue belonged to Italy.

The Getty strongly believes that once the case moves to the Court of Cassation these facts should be considered and that the Getty will ultimately prevail…

…or maybe outlast the opposition.

In a written statement he sent me in November 2006, former Metropolitan Museum director Tom Hoving (not always a reliable narrator) had told me this:

The old man, J. Paul, insisted before he purchased the bronze (to share with the Met in exchange for the Met’s lending the Boscotrecase frescoes the the Getty indefinitely) that the Italian government grant permission in writing [for the two U.S. museums] to acquire and exhibit it. [Emphasis added.]…

Why can’t the Getty simply respect the donor’s wishes and hand it back to Italy?

The Getty Museum bought “The Victorious Youth,” dated 300-100 B.C., for $3.95 million in 1977. (Getty had died the previous year.) Here’s what the sculpture’s new label says about its travels:

His olive wreath suggests Olympia was the site of his victory and the original location of the statue. After the sculpture was removed, probably in Roman times, it was shipwrecked en route to Italy.

This almost sounds like the Getty is suggesting that if the “Victorious Youth” goes anywhere, it should be Greece. Who will emerge victorious in this endurance contest is still anyone’s guess.

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