Negotiations Stall between Italy and the Getty

Francesco Rutelli, Italy’s minister for Cultural Heritage, is apparently not pleased with the way negotiations have been going with the Getty museum regarding the return of a number of Italian antiquities, the LA Times reported last week. Giuseppe Proietti, a senior cultural official has said in a recent interview that “The negotiations haven’t made a single step forward…We will not accept partial solutions. I will suggest the Italian government take cultural sanctions against the Getty, suspending all cultural cooperation.” Apparently, such an embargo would have a limited effect, because Italy does not generally loan many objects anyway. A number of papers around the world have picked up this embargo story, including the Australian, and The Times. Its yet more evidence of Italy’s aggressive new strategy to repatriate its antiquities, and prevent their illicit excavation.

Much of the tension here involves a debate between what John Henry Merryman has called cultural nationalists and cultural internationalists. Cultural nationalists generally believe that an object belongs in its context. So in this case, they would argue the Italian antiquities are best enjoyed and appreciated in Italy. On the other hand, Cultural Internationalists generally believe in an open and honorable antiquities market, which allows objects to be bought and sold. In that way, the market moves them to the location where they can best be preserved and studied. Both positions seem reasonable to me, however they are mutually exclusive, and lead to a great deal of contention, mainly between dealers and archaeologists.

The image here is of the new $275 million restoration of the Getty Villa in Malibu, which houses Etruscan, Greek, and Roman antiquities (including many of the objects Italy wants returned). It was patterned after the first-century Roman Villa dei Papiri, which was covered after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and recently redesigned by Jorge Silvetti. I don’t think anyone can argue that this new renovated Villa is not a fantastic venue to exhibit these works. However, does Italy have a stronger claim to them, especially when some of the most valuable antiquities seem very likely to have been looted? The archaeological context surrounding these objects may have told us a great deal. However that contextual information is now lost forever.

Dr. Lorenzo Zucca highlights an interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Review of Books, which helps shed some light on the dispute. The Getty, established in 1953 by J. Paul Getty is one the wealthiest art institution on the planet, boasting assets of $9 billion. In the 1980’s, the Getty pursued a very aggressive antiquities acquisition policy. This has led to the indictment and trial of Marion True, a respected curator of Greek and Roman Art. Italy certainly aims to make an example out of true, and the dealer who is also on trial, Robert Hecht. The California attorney general has also recently concluded an investigation.

It is hard to predict the possible outcome of the negotiations between Italy and the Getty. Italian authorities are certainly elevating the rhetoric in an attempt to shame the Getty into repatriating many of its works. We can debate whether these objects belong in Italy or in Malibu until we are blue in the face. The fact remains, though, that wherever these pieces are, people will come to visit them.

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

Greek Investigation


I’m a bit late on this story, but on Tuesday, the Greek Culture Minister, George Voulgarakis issued a statement calling an antiquities ring investigation one of the most “complex in recent memory”. The bust came on the small island of Schinoussa, pictured here. It’s one of many islands in the Aegean, which has historically had some notoriety for being a haven for pirates and other criminals.

The original discovery came in April of this year. There are indications that this investigation may have some links to the trial of Marion True, who is on trial in Rome on charges of conspiring to traffic in stolen antiquities. The raid turned up a wealth of objects, including the ancient, early Christian, and byzantine eras. The owner of the villa is Despina Papadimitriou, a member of a prominent Greek shipping family whose late brother, Christos Michailidis, was an antiquities dealer. Another house was searched, on a neighboring island,which was owned by Marion True.

The outcome of this investigation remains to be seen. However, it does reiterate, at least anecdotally, the size of the illicit market in antiquities.

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

Italy in Negotiations with the Getty Museum


Yesterday’s New York Times has an interesting article regarding Italy’s negotiations with the Getty museum for the return of Italian antiquities. One of the objects at issue is this 5th Century B.C. limestone statue of Aphrodite which the Getty acquired in 1988.

The negotiations are part of an aggressive strategy Italy seems to be implementing with respect to policing and repatriating its antiquities. The so-called Getty trial is currently underway in Rome, and Italy also recently signed an agreement with Switzerland, one of the traditional transit states for Italian antiquities.

Italy wants the return of 52 objects currently in the Getty collection, which Italy alleges were illicitly excavated. I think a sign of the testiness of the negotiations is the way the Times prefaced a quote from an inside source familiar with the negotiations:

People close to the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern that their remarks could arouse personal antagonism and jeopardize the talks, say the Getty has made it clear that it is prepared to return about two dozen objects on the list.

If the items were in fact illicitly excavated, Italy may be able to get the Getty to return at least some of the objects, as it’s really bad publicity for the Getty overall. I’m just speculating here, but they may want to wait until the conclusion of the trial before they return the objects, and that’s when I would expect a deal to emerge (much in the same way a President may boot an unpopular Secretary of Defense). We should remember, though, that much of the damage has already been done. When this statue was excavated, it was embedded in a wealth of archaeological information, what is often referred to as context. When this object was dug up, that context was almost certainly destroyed. Also, the Getty didn’t excavate these objects, though they did pay a substantial sum for them. Italy’s argument is that these funds support the illicit excavators and unscrupulous dealers, so this kind of transaction should be reversed, to prevent future destruction. This is a tenuous disincentive though, and one of the reasons why tackling the illicit trade in cultural property is so difficult.

At this point, the Italy-Getty negotiations seem very similar to the Greece-British Museum arguments regarding the Parthenon Marbles. However there is one marked difference: this sale only occurred within the last 20 years, while the Parthenon Marbles have been in Britain for closer to 200 years.

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

10 arrested in Agrigento, Italy

Agenzia Giornalistica Italia reported on Nov. 6 that 12 arrest warrants were issued, and 10 arrests were carried out for art theft and kidnapping.

The arrests occurred in Agrigento, on the island of Sicily. The island, of course, is notorious for its beautiful Greek and Roman heritage, and also for its ties to organized crime.

The image is of the temple of Dioscurio, located near Agrigento. The city is one of the poorest in Italy, despite its incredibly rich archaeological heritage. This may be an example of the Italian authorities cracking down on illicit excavation. I haven’t been able to find any more information on the arrests, but when I do, I’ll post it here.

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

Record Auction For Christie’s New York?

An auction of Impressionist and other modern works in New York next month may become the most lucrative art auction ever, The Times Online reports. The November 8-9 auction could fetch $490 million. Four Klimts, including Adele Bloch-Bauer II (pictured here) are for sale, as well as a blue-period Picasso. The Times reports that the art market has not been this active since 1990.

The Klimts are from the Altmann collection, which was recovered from Austria last year after an arbitration ruling granted the heirs of Adele Bloch-Bauer the five pieces after a 7-year legal battle. The New York Times gives a background of the dispute in its story about another Bloch-Bauer portrait which fetched a record $135 million. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Bloch-Bauer fled, leaving all his possessions behind, and for the last 60 years, the works have hung in the Austrian National Gallery.

The legal dispute even reached the US Supreme Court, in Republic of Austria v. Altmann. That decision upheld lower court rulings which involved the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which grants foreign nations immunity from suits in US courts. The Court upheld an exception of FSIA which allows suits when property has been taken in violation of international law.

The Klimts are exceptionally valuable, and certainly Mrs. Altmann has an excellent claim to the works. However, in terms of the general public, do these works belong in Austria, where they were commissioned? Or are they just as worthy of hanging in a museum in the US? The question is moot I suppose, because the works are Mrs. Altmann’s to dispose of as she pleases. But are the works Austrian in character, such that they can only be fully appreciated in Austria? I think not. These are the arguments some antiquities experts make though in support of the return of antiquities to their source nation. I guess I’m not really sure why the argument should be any different between art or antiquities.


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

Sevso Treasure on Private Display

For the last week, the infamous Sevso treasure has been on display in Bonham’s auction house in London. The New York Times devotes an article in its art section to the exhibition. The private exhibition marks only the second time the 14 silver objects have been displayed, and its not even open to the general public. Some estimates value the 14 sculptures at $187 million. The last display occurred in new York in 1990. The silver objects are roman in origin, and are believed to date from 350 – 450 A.D.

Despite their beauty, the antiquities are marred by controversy. This week’s display was certainly made in anticipation of an eventual sale. However, the location, archaeological context and provenance of the find remain unknown. We do know the Marquess of Northampton acquired the objects in the early 1980’s. In 1983, 10 of the objects were offered for sale to the Getty museum, however the sale fell through because the export licenses were falsified.

One of the difficulties with these items is that their origin remains a complete mystery. Though certainly Roman in origin, Lebanon, Croatia, and Hungary have all made claims on the objects. There was a lengthy series of legal proceedings. After a 7 week trial in 1993 in the New York Supreme Court (the court of general jurisdiction in New York) a jury found that neither Croatia nor Hungary had established a valid claim over the treasure, and the Marquess of Northampton retained ownership.

The exhibition and potential sale have caused quite a stir already. In the London Times, Lord Colin Renfrew, former director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research argued that the display of the works by any UK museum would be unethical, and “It is an affront to public decency that a commercial dealer should do so – even if many archaeologists such as myself, will take the opportunity of going to inspect it.” The problem of course, is we know the objects are Roman, but not which part of the former Roman empire they were discovered in. Hungary and Croatia both feel strongly about their claims, but they are unable to establish concrete ownership.

There has been an atmosphere of reform in recent years in the UK, with accession to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the Ministerial Illicit Trade Advisory Panel, the Parliamentary Inquiry in 2001, and the new Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003. How the UK government will respond to the trade in these objects, which was undoubtedly the result of an illicit excavation should be interesting to watch unfold.

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

New Italy-Swiss Art Pact


On Friday, Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin and Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli signed a bilateral agreement making it more difficult for objects from Italy to be illicitly traded through Switzerland. I haven’t been able to track down the precise details of the agreement, but it seems the deal will require customs officials from both nations to require proof of a lawful export from the other nation before an object is allowed into the country.

This agreement may be another upshot of the Getty trial currently underway in Italy. Its also likely a product of Swiss concerns that its art market (valued at $1.2 billion) has taken on a seedy reputation in recent years as a transit state. Switzerland also recently signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention in an effort to change its image. The new agreement is set to come into force sometime early next year.

This measure could have a substantial practical impact on the amount of looting taking place in Italy. However one large obstacle is the fact that most antiquities are portable, and can be easily disguised as something mundane with a coat of paint or varnish. Jonathan Tokely-Parry and Frederick Schultz served prison time in the UK and US respectively for disguising Egyptian antiquities in this manner. One of the sad realities of the illicit trade is the fact that customs agents don’t have the resources to search every car, or freight container which enters its borders. Though bilateral agreements like this one are certainly a welcome development, more work needs to be done to remedy problems with the market.

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