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