Italian Appeals Court Orders the Return of the Getty Bronze

A surprising ruling today by Judge Mussoni in the case involving this statute, known as “The Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” currently on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu.  I’ve looked at the merits of Italy’s repatriation case in some detail before, here and here.  Essentially, this Bronze was found in the Adriatic in the 1960’s, and Italian fishermen and others smuggled the work abroad.  It was eventually purchased by the Getty.  Criminal proceedings were brought against some of the smugglers decades ago, but they were never convicted.  

The present case was brought by the Italian government, seeking a forfeiture of the statue.  The Getty has indicated it will appeal; but the confiscation order will take effect immediately according to Maurizio Fiorilli, an attorney representing the Italian government.  There are a few hurdles to be crossed before the Getty has to pack up the Bronze and ship it to Italy however.

I haven’t had time to research the legal specifics yet, but I would like to offer some tentative observations.  First, I do not see how the Italian court has jurisdiction over the statue; and getting it returned will require the cooperation of the State Department or Department of Justice.  Second, this case presents a unique situation.  I’m not aware of any case in which a nation of origin brings suit in a domestic court to seek the return of an object from abroad.  If the Italians are successful in securing the return of the bronze, it would rewrite the law governing repatriation in many respects.  But finally, none of the law may matter.  As I’ve argued before, the court of public opinion is often the most important arbiter in many of these cases.  Italy would seem to have a difficult time compelling the State Department or DOJ to compel the Getty to ship the Bronze to Italy; but they could impose a kind of cultural embargo on the Getty, or on other American archaeologists if they want to force the repatriation of the Bronze.

It should come as no surprise then that the Getty’s Press Release this afternoon was critical of the decision:

The Getty is disappointed in the ruling issued February 11 by Judge [Lorena] Mussoni in Pesaro, Italy, involving the Statue of a Victorious Youth, often referred to as the Getty Bronze. The court’s order is flawed both procedurally and substantively.

It should be noted that the same court in Pesaro dismissed an earlier case in 2007 in which the same prosecutor claimed the Statue of a Victorious Youth belonged to Italy. In that case, the judge held that the statute of limitations had long since expired, that there was no one to prosecute under Italian law, and that the Getty was to be considered a good faith owner.

In fact, no Italian court has ever found any person guilty of any criminal activity in connection with the export or sale of the statue. To the contrary, Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, held more than four decades ago that the possession by the original owners ‘did not constitute a crime.

The Getty will appeal the Pesaro court’s order to the Court of Cassation in Rome and will vigorously defend its legal ownership of the statue.

  1. Court orders seizure of Getty bronze, ANSA, Feb. 11, 2010.  
  2. Nicole Winfield, Italian court orders contested bronze statue confiscated from Getty Museum, CP, Feb. 11, 2010.  
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2 thoughts on “Italian Appeals Court Orders the Return of the Getty Bronze”

  1. Derek, I agree with your past posts that much of the Italian argument and case rests on their ability to establish the fact that the statue came from Italian waters. Could they be a step closer somehow to proving this? If they are not, and the work were to be returned, then it would set a dangerous precedent for future claims.

    Was this in any way caused by the recent article published by the LATimes implying Getty’s own concerns over a questionable bronze that was assumed to be the “Victorious Youth”, but was later corrected as not having been this bronze in particular?

    I think from an archaeological and criminological view that it’s more critical to expend resources on preventing or at least reducing the illicit trade in art and antiquities rather than recover what has already been lost. Furthermore, I think often is the case that culturally rich source countries will play the victim while not acknowledging their own looting pasts.

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