Italian court says Getty's prized ancient bronze should be seized

A photo of Getty Villa featured on its Facebook page. An Italian court ruled this month that a statue in the Los Angeles museum belongs to Italy.

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - It is a Greek statue, but it was found in the open waters of the Adriatic by Italian fishermen. It now stands in the Getty Villa, a museum in Los Angeles. Which country is the rightful home for the so-called Getty Bronze?

An Italian court ruled this month it belongs to Italy, and should return there, but that is only the latest chapter in an extended legal battle over the work, also known as Statue Of A Victorious Youth, that has stretched out for more than a decade.

The statue, described as "priceless" by the Getty, is thought to have either been inspired or created by Lysippus, the renowned Greek sculptor, and is dated to roughly 300-100 BC. The naked athlete depicted stands around five feet tall, his weight shifted onto his right leg. His right arm is raised near his head, as if he is admiring the crown on his head.

In recent months, the statue was moved from a room, where it alone was displayed, to a larger gallery in the renovated Getty Villa, the antiquities arm of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

The Getty said in a statement that it won't be deterred by the latest ruling and would file another appeal with Italy's highest judicial authority, the Court of Cassation, sending a clear signal that it intends to keep the statue and to continue the litigation.

"We are disappointed in the ruling," said the statement from Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig, "but we will continue to defend our legal right to the statue. The facts in this case do not warrant restitution of the object to Italy."

He added: "The statue is not part of Italy's extraordinary cultural heritage. Accidental discovery by Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object. Found outside the territory of any modern state, and immersed in the sea for two millenniums, the Bronze has only a fleeting and incidental connection with Italy."

The statue was discovered submerged in a shipwreck in 1964 by fishermen from Fano, a town on the Italian coast. The Getty suggests in its description of the statue that it had likely been carried out of Greece by Romans, whose ship was lost at sea. The fishermen later sold it, and it was shipped out of the country and became the subject of subsequent sales. The Getty Trust purchased it in 1977 for US$3.95 million (S$5.27 million) from a German dealer.

The legal conflict stems from a 1939 Italian law that says Italy owns any antiquity discovered on its territory and that any ancient work to be shipped out of the country requires a government export license. The Getty has maintained that the work's discovery in the sea puts it outside Italy's jurisdiction - and several judges in Italy have, in various rulings, agreed or disagreed with that position.

Criminal proceedings in Italy over the statue date back to the 1960s when authorities brought charges against the Italian dealers who first purchased the sculpture from the fishermen. The case ultimately ended up with the Court of Appeals of Rome, who overturned the convictions on the grounds that no proof substantiated that the item had any value or that it was indeed discovered in Italy.

In 1989, the Italian government asked the Getty to return the item, and the dispute began to heat up in 2007, when the Italian cultural ministry struck a deal with the Getty Trust to return more than 40 pieces to Greece and Italy because of questions regarding provenance.

Italy sought Statue Of A Victorious Youth as part of that deal, but the two sides tabled the discussion, as the battle moved into the Italian court system. In 2010, an Italian court demanded the statue be seized in a case where the question of whether the Getty Trust had done its proper due diligence before acquiring the statue was debated.

The Getty Trust appealed to the Court of Cassation, who kicked it back to the regional court, which then upheld the decision in 2012. Several more hearings and appeals followed and culminated with the latest decision from the local court in Pesaro, near where the fishermen first returned with the statue in their boat. It judged that the Getty must return the bronze.

An official from the Italian cultural ministry said it is considering how it might execute the court order. In some cases, foreign governments will ask for the help of the US Justice Department in recovering an artwork that is the subject of a repatriation claim. The department did not return a request for comment.

Lawyer William Pearlstein, a partner at the New York-based art law firm Pearlstein McCullough & Lederman, which has frequently represented antiquities dealers in disputes with governments, said that he thought the museum had solid legal grounds on which to hold onto the bronze.

"Unless the Getty knew that the piece was stolen, which it didn't, and unless the Getty committed some customs violation, it's unlikely that there was a violation of United States criminal or customs law," he said.

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