Commemorating Italy’s 1909 Antiquity Law

Elisabetta Povoledo has an overview of an Italian exhibition celebrating its 1909 Antiquities Law in Tuesday’s New York Times. The proposed message is clear, were it not for Italy’s strong cultural heritage laws, we would have lost a great deal of contextual and other information. One object from the exhibition is this bust of Augustas purchased in “an antiquarian market in 1938”.

As the piece notes:

The exhibition is part of a broader scholarly program to study and celebrate the 1909 cultural-heritage legislation, which laid the groundwork for protective laws adopted in subsequent decades. “That early law consolidated principles that are still active today,” said Adriano La Regina, one of Rome’s leading archaeologists and the chief curator of the exhibition.

These laws have set an important precedent, and resahped the art and antiquities trade. They remain an imperfect instrument though. There are potential drawbacks to such an aggressive legal regime. One example is an unsuccessful attempt by Italy –characterized by John Henry Merryman as retention– to secure the return of a French work by Matisse which was illegally exported to the United States, Jeanneret v. Vichy 693 F.2d 259 (2d Cir. 1982). The regime may also present difficulties for contemporary Italian artists, which often have a difficult time selling their work abroad:

Domenico Piva, president of the Italian federation of art dealers, said it was “preposterous” that a release form must be obtained from the Culture Ministry each time a 50-year-old art object is exported, “even if it’s an industrial object by an architect.”

He said the laws had “led to the creation of an entirely internal and provincial art market” and restricted the profile of modern Italian artists abroad. “We complain that the Impressionists have a great international market, and our own artists are ignored, but it’s because our artists only circulate in Italy,” he said.

These are the two sides of the cultural heritage debate. In a sense I suppose its a difficulty with art and culture generally when art and cultural output is commodified.

It’s also interesting that this exhibition comes close on the heels of the resolution of the Oetzi “Iceman” dispute, in which a court ruled the North Italian province of Bolzano had to pay a finders’ fee of 150,000 Euros. This after the finders — who were on a hike in 1991 — were offered 5,200 euros initially. Italian law provides a finders’ fee of 25% of a discovery’s value. The difficulty can be settling on a real value of an object which has no licit market. But the council finally agreed to pay the larger amount in recognition of the tremendous tourist dollars the find attracts.

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