Italy Agrees to Repatriate a Roman Statue to Libya


In yesterday’s Washington Post, Ariel David has an interesting article on Italy’s decision to repatriate this Roman statue of the goddess Venus. The statue is a copy of a Greek statue which has never been found. It was discovered in 1913 by Italian troops near the ruins of the ancient city of Cyrene on the Libyan coast. It was probably created in the 2nd Century AD. It’s currently housed at the National Roman Museum in Rome.

Libya requested the return of the statue in 1989, however a legal dispute involving a group which considered the statue part of Italy’s heritage has prevented the return for the last 4 years. Last week an Italian Court rejected a plea from the Italia Nostra conservation group, as international agreements “obliged” Italy to return the Greek statue.

Edmondo Zappacosta, counsel for the Libyan government said “This is a granite-like sentence, with solid arguments… On the basis of historical and juridical considerations, it was virtually a foregone conclusion that the Italia Nostra appeal would be rejected.” The statue can now be returned to Tripoli. A date has yet to be set for the return.

The ruling is an interesting one. Many of the news reports indicate that it allows Italy to claim that other nations should return antiquities illicitly taken from Italy. I think a better reading of the decision is that it limits the ability of individuals to challenge the return of cultural heritage. This was a decision about whether the Italia Nostra could block the return. If angry citizens groups were allowed to challenge repatriation decisions, it would be very difficult to effectively repatriate objects, especially if the objects at issue are part of a popular collective heritage, like Greek or Roman civilization.

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

Recent Repatriations and the Parthenon Marbles


The TimesOnline had an article last week by Ben Macintyre tying in the recent repatriations and criminal trials in Italy and Greece to the Parthenon Marbles (or the Elgin Marbles as they are often referred to). Here’s an excerpt:

The return to Greece of a spectacular Macedonian gold wreath from the 4th century BC may lead to the repatriation of several looted artefacts worth millions of pounds.

Court cases in Italy and Greece are increasing the pressure on museums around the world and could lead to widespread changes in the handling of ancient treasures.

The campaign to return stolen work to its country of origin has emboldened Costas Karamanlis, the Prime Minister of Greece, to predict that Britain will soon be forced to surrender the Elgin Marbles. Also at stake are hundreds of statues, bronzes, engravings and other artworks from museums in Europe, the US and Japan.

At the heart of this revolution is the landmark case of the funerary wreath, one of the most beautiful surviving examples of ancient craftsmanship, which was looted from Greece more than ten years ago. A delicate spray of gold leaves interwoven with coloured glass paste, the wreath was probably designed as a funeral gift and made soon after the death of Alexander the Great.

It was put on display in Greece for the first time this week after a long campaign to persuade the J. Paul Getty Museum, in California, to return it to its homeland.

Mr Karamanlis welcomed its return as evidence that Britain would soon be forced to relinquish the Elgin Marbles, which were acquired by the British diplomat Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1810 and are currently housed in the British Museum. Britain has argued that they are better preserved in London (continue reading).

These repatriations are an important step, and are an example of stronger action by both Greece and Italy. However, the Vatican is expected to announce that it will refuse to return some fragments of the Parthenon. Parts of the Parthenon are spread all over Europe, including London, Rome, Copenhagen, Berlin.

I was at the British Museum a few weeks ago, and I was reminded how impressive the sculptures still are, even though they are broken and decontextualized. It would be very exciting to see all of the sculptures collected in Athens for display. However, people all over Europe can view parts of them at present, and there is a value in that as well I suppose. In the end, I seriously doubt whether the British Museum will ever relinquish the marbles.

The case for their return seems much different from the gold wreath which the Getty just returned and from the trial of Marion True. The argument for their return is only ethical or moral, there is no legal claim to them which Greece could hope to assert.

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

Getty Panel to Study "Cult Statue of a Goddess"


The Getty Museum has today announced it will bring together a panel to study this statue, probably of Aphrodite, known as the “Cult Statue of a Goddess”. Last November, Michael Brand announced the Getty would transfer full title of the statue to Italy. He said the Getty would try to return the statue within 12 months. The Italian Ministry of Culture has demanded other objects though, including the “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” which I’ve discussed here many times.

The experts have expertise in archeology, pollen analysis, stone analysis, and art history. University of Virginia Professor in Art History Malcolm Bell III has signed on to the workshop. He has been critical of the negative impact the antiquities market has had on archaeological context in the past. You can read a 2005 article he wrote here at the Museum Security Network. In it he said this statue “is an extremely rare example of the sort of cult statue that once stood within a Greek temple. While, as some have asserted, this remarkable work may come from Morgantina (a site in Sicily where I serve as co-director of excavations), no proof of its origin is known, and its subject is just as uncertain. The market destroyed the evidence.”

Both the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Sicilian Regional Minister of Culture and Environmental Heritage have been invited to attend as well. The demand for this kind of statue motivated those who illicitly excavated and exported this work from its source nation. This workshop aims to study the statue, with the presumed goal of finding the findspot or provenience of this statue.

Scientific study is of course welcome, and perhaps these experts will be able to look at the soil and other residue removed from the statue when it was cleaned and learn a lot about it. However, if the market only dealt in licit antiquities, chances are we would know a great deal more about this statue. Many have criticized the Getty’s aggressive antiquities-buying in the past, as the large sums of money they were willing to pay for these objects helped to fuel the illicit market.

The workshop is set to take place in May, and the findings will be peer-reviewed and then published.

What will the impact of this workshop be? The Getty has already agreed to return the statue, and the Italian Culture Ministry has insisted more objects should be returned. I am not sure what scientific data can be gleaned from the statue and the concretions at this point. I suspect it will not be conclusive, and will perhaps point to a number of findspots.

Dr. Brand says of the panel “the questions and allegations surrounding the statue’s origins are complex and often contradictory. Our role as responsible stewards demands that we examine these questions in greater detail…We look forward to the opportunity to work with our international colleagues to shed more light on this subject.” I hope both the Getty and Italy are able to work together to reach an effective compromise on this and the other works in the Getty collection.

Italians are very proud of their ancient history and rightly so. These disputes implicate national and cultural feelings. A productive dialogue would seem to be a better solution to this problem than a lot of the rhetoric which seems to fly back and forth in the press by both sides.

If the study is able to show the statue originated in another nation, like present-day Turkey, if the Getty will decide against returning the statue to Italy. The Getty’s message to Italy seems clear, if you aren’t willing to negotiate on these objects, we will look at them ourselves and determine where they should belong. From the legal and policy perspective, it would be much more helpful if the Getty clearly outlined the process an object goes through before it is repatriated. What kind of calculus is involved in deciding to repatriate? It seems that in the Italian case, the Culture Ministry has been extremely vocal and forced the Getty’s hand in recent years.

Lee Rosenbaum over at Culturgrrl has a post on the same topic as well.


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

Marischal Museum Returns Maori Remains

The University of Aberdeen’s Marischal Museum has decided to return 9 toi moko, or preserved, tattooed heads. According to the press release, “the University follows a standard procedure when responding to a request for repatriation… [it] involves an expert panel who will consider various issues, for example the history, the status of the people making the request and the importance of the item”. The toi moko will now return to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where they will be cared for under the “protocols established by their Maori elders”. Human remains are a difficult issue, but it appears that the University has gone about this repatriation in the right way. Sometimes the remains have been embalmed in toxic chemicals such as arsenic, or formaldehyde; thus making it difficult to simply bury them. Often times specialist are required. In addition, though this certainly does not appear to be the case here, when native groups seek the return of remains or other objects, it sometimes highlights the dichotomy between the way their ancestors lived and their lives today. Also, institutions need to be careful which tribe they are returning remains or objects to. Often, there may be multiple tribes with a claim. For those interested in this area, Michael Brown’s Who Owns Native Culture is an excellent place to start.

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

More on Italy’s Aggressive Repatriation Campaign

Two articles from today’s New York Times further highlight Italy’s aggressive repatriation policies of late.

First, a new sculpture, the statute of Eirene, pictured here, is on extended temporary display until 2009 in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Italy agreed to loan the sculpture after the Museum agreed to return antiquities to Italy. The Museum of Fine Arts held a news conference yesterday with Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli to announce the display. The Met will also receive a temporary exhibition of a 4th century B.C. drinking cup, called a kylix. However it has chosen to downplay the agreement. The granting of these two temporary exhibitions by Italy, further underscores its dispute with the Getty over antiquities. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Met have chosen to cooperate with Italy, and have been granted these works. It gives added emphasis to Italy’s threatened cultural embargo against the Getty, after negotiations broke off between the two parties.

Second, a private collector has been asked by Italy to return 20 artifacts it claims were illicitly excavated. The collector, Shelby White and her late husband, Leon Levy, acquired a significant collection of antiquities over the last 30 years. Maurizio Fiorilli, a lawyer with Italy’s Culture Ministry, has asked Ms. White to return the objects. The Italians have acknowledged that they do not have much legal pressure to force the restitution of these objects. However exerting public pressure may be their best chance at repatriating these objects. Highlighting Italy’s claims is a study conducted by two British archaeologists, Christopher Chippindale and David Gill. It suggested that 84% of objects owned by Ms. White and her husband which were exhibited at the Met in a special 1990 exhibition were illicitly excavated. Whether this Italian campaign will prove successful and will have an impact on the demand for illicit antiquities remains to be seen. It is an interesting move by Italy to attempt to convince private collectors that purchasing these objects without a solid provenance may indeed be unethical, and may be damaging the very tradition and heritage which they wish to preserve and own. Some commentator have argued for stiffer criminal penalties for collectors of these objects. That seems like a difficult thing to enact though, as these individuals are generally the pillars of their community. After all, Ms. White donated $200 million to NYU for a new antiquities department. A more effective approach may be a campaign to associate collecting of unprovenanced antiquities with the destruction of a nation’s heritage and archaeological record.

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

Repatriation Fuelling the Art Market

In today’s New York Times, another article on how the art market is booming. One of the reasons has been the recent repatriation of art looted by the Nazis in World War II. I discussed the Klimt’s earlier this week, but there are also works by Kirchner, Vuillard and Picasso.

This remains an interesting issue. When courts and commentators speak of repatriation, it is often done so in terms of how these pieces of art have been taken during the war, and how they should be returned to the heirs of the original owners. An unacknowledged issue though, is how valuable these works are. There value can be so high, that its simply not economically feasible for the current claimants to hold on to them, and they end up auctioning them. Perhaps instead of simply awarding title to the paintings, courts may want to fashion compromises. They could agree to a fractional ownership scheme, allowing a claimant to hold on to the work for a certain part of the year for example. Or they could agree to a one-time payoff. In the United States, replevin actions are the primary mechanism which claimants use to seek the return of works of art. However, ownership disputes spanning 60 years are not always easily solved by awarding title to one party or another. A better solution may be a compromise between the parties.

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