Italy Blinks

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino report in today’s LA Times that Italy and the Getty have reopened discussions over 46 potentially illicit antiquities. New discussions are possible because it seems Italy has relented in its claim to the “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth”. As I and others have argued, Italy’s claims to the bronze are weak: the statue was found by chance in the Adriatic, it was probably created in Greece, it has been in the Getty for 30 years, and Italy was unable to establish any wrongdoing during criminal proceedings in the 1960s.

As to a new criminal investigation:

A senior Italian official said the culture ministry decided that the fate of the statue should not be negotiated until a new criminal investigation into the statue’s discovery and export from Italy is complete. The official asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the record while negotiations were ongoing.

The new investigation, being conducted by a regional magistrate, was requested several months ago by a local citizens group in Fano, hometown of the fishermen who found the statue, brought it ashore and hid it in a cabbage field before selling it to a local dealer.

But even its citizen sponsors admit the investigation is unlikely to uncover the full story of the artifact’s discovery and export from Italy. Nearly four decades have passed since the bronze athlete left Italy under mysterious circumstances, and many of the people involved have since died.

This is a welcome development, and allows both sides to engage in meaningful negotiations. In the past Italy has given loans of other objects in exchange for the return of contested works. Negotiations will likely be difficult though, as the Getty has 45 contested antiquities, and the criminal trial of Marion True overshadows much of the negotiation. It will be interesting to hear what Francesco Rutelli has to say about this development, as he has argued very strongly for some months that the Bronze must be returned.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Catching Up

Noteworthy items from the last week:

  • A former employee of the State Museum in Trenton New Jersey was charged with stealing a rare atlas worth $60,000.
  • Charles McGrath of the NYT speculates about who will succeed Philippe de Montebello at the Met.
  • Shaila Dewan, also of the NYT looks at the interesting litigation surrounding the Gees Bend quilters in Alabama.
  • Black College Wire looks at the possibility of the return of more vigango to Africa.
  • Tom Flynn of ArtKnows looks at the growing market for Aboriginal art.
  • Another instance of theft of public art, this time in Wisconsin.
  • Bucky Katt of Get Fuzzy “found” a new Monet.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Antiquities and Politics


On Wednesday, Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times gave an interesting perspective on the Italy/Getty dispute. He expressed some of the same ideas I’ve had for months. Namely, that Italy does not have a strong claim the the “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” and Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, who Lee Rosenbaum has labelled the “Great Repatriator”, is using Italian cultural pride to earn political capital.

To start, Knight could not foresee the recent dispute over a da Vinci loan taking place in the US:

Imagine Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) chaining himself to the gates of New York’s Metropolitan Museum to protest the loan of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” to a foreign museum.Unimaginable? That’s the point. The brawl over the Leonardo loan was overwrought, but in Italy it was politics as unusual.

As I said back in March, “Cultural policy is a much more prominent part of Italian politics than in many other countries.” Knight makes an interesting connection from this kind of outrage to recent Italian/American relations:

The flash point was Prodi’s advocacy for the controversial expansion of an American Army base in Vicenza. Thirty thousand peaceful protesters poured into the streets in December, followed by 80,000 in February. Then a motion in the Italian Senate to support the government’s pro-U.S. foreign policy failed, much to Prodi’s surprise. His precarious coalition government temporarily collapsed. It’s still riven with fissures, and the left remains its most unruly faction.

Rutelli’s escalating anti-Getty posturing is old-fashioned political demagoguery, pitched to voters back home. The ultimatum symbolically proclaims that powerful American interests cannot push Italy around, making the government look tough. The emptiness of Italy’s legal and ethical claims for the Getty Bronze are beside the point.

I think that is exactly right. The engine driving Italy’s very effective public repatriation campaign is Italian respect for their own culture. I’ve spoken with some Italians about this very issue, and their immediate response is “of course the bronze should go back”. But in this case such pride may be doing more harm than good. I’ve included a very unscientific poll at the left just to see what readers may think about this dispute. I expect to hear more from both sides in the coming week, as Rutelli’s deadline expires.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The "Ghost Marbles"


The New Acropolis Museum is nearing completion (it may open in 2008), and it is attempting to make a powerful statement about where the parthenon/elgin marbles belong. The museum was due to be finished in time for the summer olympics in 2004, but a number of delays have pushed back completion. It seems some of the sculptures will be displayed, while the missing pieces will have plaster copies displayed behind a gray screen. Sharon Waxman visited the new museum this week and included some pictures, including this one. Here’s an excerpt:

[Dimitris] Pandermalis, [President of the new museum] intends to exhibit the frieze of the Parthenon, with the actual sculptures at the height shown here, and with plaster casts of the many friezes still at the British Museum behind a grey scrim. You can’t help thinking of that as another deliberate gesture, and as the scrim as a kind of shroud. Pandermalis, however, is anything but emotional. “It’s the pride of the nation,” he says quietly. “But I prefer to be silent on the issue.”

Interesting stuff, and I have no doubt the image of the parthenon in the distance, along with the shrouded missing pieces will act as a powerful symbol. Lee Rosenbaum also talks about a recent presentation Pandermalis gave in New York:

But during a recent slide presentation in New York—showing the current appearance of the new museum, as well as renderings of what it will look like when it opens (possibly in late 2008)—Dimitris Pandermalis…revealed a new approach to the problem of the missing marbles. Instead of an empty space, the slide showed an image of one of the Greek-owned marbles chockablock with a copy of the British-owned slab that would have originally been beside it on the façade of the Parthenon. Together, they completed the relief of a horse. So that there would be no confusion between the original and the copy, the latter was veiled by a scrim, making it appear like a “ghost,” as Pandermalis put it.

Whether this shifts the position of the British Museum will be interesting to see. I wonder if all of the missing pieces will be “Ghosted” or if its just the pieces held by the British Museum. After all, bits and pieces of the Acropolis are scattered all over Europe. Also, what is the rationale for only shading the marbles in the hands of others, what about the destruction when the Acropolis basically exploded when the Venetians landed a direct hit on the powder magazine in the 17th Century?

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

4 Old Masters Rediscovered


Four works by Lucas Cranach the Elder have been discovered at a German antique dealership 27 years after they were stolen from a Lutheran church in Klieken in East Germany. The thieves were never caught. Art experts have said that only a handful of experts would have been able to recognize the works as Cranach’s work.

This highlights again the problem of two innocents. What the brief wire reports do not say is that the antique dealer probably has superior title to the works. I’m not too familiar with German art law per se, but in most Civil law systems a good faith purchaser will have superior title to the original owner. The dealer has not done anything wrong, and neither has the Church which was victimized. As a result legal systems have a difficult time allocating rights between the two relative innocents. Once again its a reason why databases such as the Art Loss Register should be consulted every time a work of art of any kind of value is purchased. There is no indication whether the dealer consulted any art loss databases, but he should have. Provenance research is the cornerstone of a licit art market, and the best practical way to prevent art theft.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Should the Getty send the Bronze to Italy?


We are approaching the deadline imposed by Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli to send the “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” to Italy. Rutelli has said the Getty has until the end of July to return 47 antiquities to Italy or risk a “real embargo”. The Getty has announced it will return 26 of those objects, not including the bronze, but the two sides seem unable to broker a deal. In early July Rutelli announced from Fano, the Italian fishing community where the fishermen first brought the bronze ashore, that he had submitted a “final proposal for dialogue and agreement [and if no deal is done,] a real conflict will begin, a real embargo–that is, the interruption of cultural and scientific collaboration between Italy and that museum.”

I’d like to summarize the reasons the Getty has refused to send the bronze to Italy, and why Italy wants the bronze to be included with the other repatriated objects. I’m curious how folks feel about this dispute. I’ve added an unscientific poll at the left where you can cast your vote.

Before I summarize the two arguments, I should make clear that Italy has no legal claim to the statue. They cannot file a suit and ask for the return of the object both because they cannot prove the statue was removed from Italian waters, and the statute of limitations has probably expired anyway. Rather Italy is making an ethical argument for the statue.

How the Statue Was Found:

The Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” is an almost life-size figure of an athlete wearing a victory wreath. The Statue was created in Greece, possibly by Alexander the Great’s Court Sculptor Lysippos, but it may have been sculpted by another. It was created sometime between the 4th and 2nd Century B.C.

In June, 1964 the Statue was recovered in modern times, by complete accident, off the northern Adriatic coast by fisherman from the Italian city of Fano. They pulled up a heavy object covered in barnacles. The most likely explanation for the find in the Adriatic is that it was taken from Greece in Roman times, and the vessel was lost at sea. A number of Greek objects were taken by invading Roman armies, the most noteworthy instance was during the fall of Syracuse. When the fisherman returned to Fano, they decided to sell the statue. The statue changed hands a number of times.

We know that Giacomo Barbetti purchased the statue from the fisherman. For a time, Barbetti and his two brothers stored the statue at the home of Father Giovanni Nagni. Barbetti then sold the statue to another man for 4,000,000 lire, not a great sum of money. It would have amounted to about $4,000. In 1966, the 3 Barbettis and Father Nagni were charged with purchasing and concealing stolen property under Italy’s 1939 Antiquities Law. The prosecution reached the Court of Appeals of Rome, however it overturned the convictions for 2 reasons (1) The prosecutors did not establish the statue came from Italian waters, and (2) there was insufficient evidence demonstrating that the statue was of “artistic and archaeological interest”. After the Barbetti’s sold the statue, the Provenance (chain of title) of the statue is a bit vague, and open to some speculation. Most likely it went through a series of owners, in an attempt to achieve a bona fide purchase at some point. It went from a Brazilian Monastery to England, and later to Munich.

In 1977, the Getty Trust purchased the Bronze for $3.95 million. It has been publicly displayed since 1978. Until 2006, Italy made no more formal requests for the Bronze, though they did ask the Getty to evaluate the possibility of returning the statue to Italy in 1989.

Italy’s Claim

Italy’s claim relies on the creation of some kind of nexus between Italy’s cultural heritage and the Bronze based on the time it was brought ashore by the fishermen at Fano. Italian authorities have at various times labelled the bronze as stolen, despite the fact Italy is unable to establish the statue was found in it’s own national waters, and as a result its national patrimony law will not apply. However, Italy does ban the export of antiquities, and the statue was almost certainly illicitly removed from Italy before traveling to Switzerland and Frankfurt before its sale to the Getty.

The Getty’s Response

The Getty has said that Italy had no claim to the bronze once it left Italy. In fact, Italian law would shield a good-faith purchaser in this case. Italy was unable to establish the statue was found in Italian waters during the criminal prosecutions in the 1960’s. Also, the Getty has argued the statue has been at the Getty far longer then it ever stayed on Italian soil.

We don’t know if the Getty knew about the statue’s illicit export when they bought it, or if they tried to research its provenance before the purchase. I’ve stated who I think has the stronger claim in the past, but I’m interested in what others may think based on the arguments put forward by both sides.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com