The ‘Getty Bronze’ forfeiture stalls badly in Italy

Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa
Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa

I’ve written a great deal here about the ongoing dispute between the Getty Museum and officials in Italy over this ancient Greek statue.

In the wake of a pair of regional court rulings in 2010 and 2012 in Pesaro, Italy there seemed a chance that Italy would secure a trans-Atlantic forfeiture of the athlete (which I considered in an article).

But now those Italian court orders have been ruled in violation of the European convention on human rights because the cases were not heard in open court. This should not come as a great surprise, as the Italian court of cassation remanded the case to an Italian constitutional court in 2014, and a favorable result seemed remote. And Italy is now left with an embarrassing and incomplete forfeiture effort, which was only ever going to be the first step of a legal strategy which would be given high marks for degree of difficulty. So this “Fano Athelete” as the Italians describe him will likely not be taking a trip to Italy any time soon.

At present the bronze is a part of the “Power and Pathos” exhibition currently on display at the National Gallery in Washington.

  1. EU law rejects Getty Lysippos restitution verdict, http://theartnewspaper.com/news/eu-law-rejects-getty-lysippos-restitution-verdict/ (last visited Dec 31, 2015).

Updating the forfeiture of the Fano Athlete

Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa
Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa

Mike Boehm of the L.A. Times reports on the current status of the Fano Athlete/Getty Bronze dispute. A division of Italy’s High Court (Corta Suprema di Cassazione) is expected to weigh an appeal of an earlier forfeiture order this week. I’m quoted as the lone dissenting voice arguing the Bronze should be returned to Italy. I think a return is the just thing to do when you consider the violations of Italian patrimony laws which occurred when the Bronze was smuggled ashore, hidden in violation of Italian law, and then allegedly treated very badly before being smuggled to Brazil, then conserved in Europe before the Getty acquisition.

For a full discussion of my understanding of the history of the case and the reasons why I think Italy stands a good chance of having the Bronze returned soon, you can have a look at my forthcoming piece in volume 32 of the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal.

Both Stephen Urice and Patty Gerstenblith seem to see the case differently:

“I’m baffled by this,” said Stephen Urice, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law who’s an expert on art law and cultural property law. “Even if you apply our ethical norms today, I don’t see a problem.”

Patty Gerstenblith, a leading advocate of protecting archaeological sites and sending looted art back to nations of origin, said that “Victorious Youth” shouldn’t be considered a looted work and needn’t be returned. Italy never had a legally valid ownership claim, she said, because the statue wasn’t found in Italian waters or on Italian soil, and it wasn’t made or owned by modern Italy’s Roman and Etruscan forebears.

Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and director of its Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law, said the fishermen who netted the statue did break Italian laws by hiding their find instead of reporting it to authorities. So did the original buyers who shipped “Victorious Youth” out of Italy without a proper export permit.

Although those illegalities raise ethical questions that might make a museum in 2014 steer clear of a purchase, Gerstenblith said, they have no bearing on the fishermen’s right to have owned and sold the bronze statue, or the Getty’s right to keep what it bought.

In any case, the forfeiture effort is persistent, and the Italian authorities seem inclined to use every tool at their disposal to help secure a return, including cultural diplomacy, mutual assistance treaties, and domestic Italian court proceedings.
Mike Boehm, The Getty’s “Victorious Youth” is subject of a custody fight, latimes.com (May 7, 2014), http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-getty-bronze-20140507-story.html.
Derek Fincham, Transnational Forfeiture of the “Getty” Bronze, 32 Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal (2014).

My article on Italian Forfeiture of the Getty Bronze

My article “Transnational forfeiture of the Getty Bronze” examining the Italian efforts to forfeit the Getty Bronze will be appearing in Volume 32 of Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal (forthcoming, 2014) soon. Later in May the Italian Court of Cassation is expected to perhaps give a final ruling.

In the meantime here is my analysis of how Italy could successfully use its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the United States to secure repatriation.

From the Introduction:

Italy has been engaged in an ongoing fifty-year struggle to recover an ancient Greek bronze. The “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” has a remarkable story. It was lost at sea in the Adriatic in antiquity; found by chance in international waters; smuggled into the Italian seaside village of Fano; hidden first in a bathtub, then a cabbage field; smuggled and hidden in Brazil; later conserved in Germany and London; and ultimately purchased by the Getty Museum only months after the death of the Trust’s namesake, J. Paul Getty. Getty refused to allow his museum to purchase the statue during his lifetime without a thorough and diligent inquiry into the title history of the Bronze, a step the trustees of the Getty did not take prior to acquisition of the Bronze.

The question is not whether the Bronze was illicit when the Getty trustees made the decision to acquire it. It most certainly was, and still is. The question now is whether the Getty will be able to continue to retain possession. In the press and in cultural property circles, the Bronze is considered nearly un-repatriatable given this convoluted history. But an Italian forfeiture action in Pesaro has quietly set in motion a means by which Italy might repatriate the Bronze through a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. This transnational forfeiture marks the creation of a useful new tool in the struggle to repatriate looted and stolen cultural objects. And perhaps more importantly, the dispute signals a continuing trend reflecting the importance of domestic law in source nations in cultural heritage law.

“Getty” Bronze Appeal Today in Rome

Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa
Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa

Today Italy’s Corte di Cassazione will hear the Getty’s appeal in the dispute over this “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth”. The Bronze was acquired by the Getty in 1977, and has been a cornerstone of its collection. But in 2007 a new seizure suit was brought in Pesaro. The most recent ruling ordered the Bronze seized, wherever it is located.

The question then must be, if the High Court in Rome upholds the seizure, will an American court enforce it? I wrote an essay titled “Transnational Forfeiture of the Getty Bronze“, soon to be published in the Cardozo Art & Entertainment Law Journal, examining this question.

My conclusion is that yes, the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the United States and Italy, in conjunction with U.S. law, does provide for U.S. assistance in an American court. The law in question, 28 U.S.C. § 2467, provides a framework for enforcing these foreign orders. But the Office of International Affairs in the State Department still has discretion in determining whether to bring suit to help enforce these foreign orders. The only guidance given in the law is to let the “interest of Justice” guide the decision made by the official. The Getty no doubt will be arguing today in Rome in the hopes that the case ends today before Italy inevitably requests assistance from the State Department.

Transnational Forfeiture of the Getty Bronze, Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal (forthcoming, 2014).

Will the Getty have to return “Victorious Youth”?

I’ve finished an essay looking at the question of whether Italy can successfully repatriate the “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” (the Getty calls it the “Getty Bronze”). The answer? It is very likely if Italy can secure the assistance from the Federal Government. But Italy should have a very good case for receiving assistance because of a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty first signed in 1982, and renewed in 2010.

Here’s the abstract:

Italy has been engaged in an ongoing fifty year struggle to recover an ancient greek bronze. The “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” has a remarkable story. It was lost at sea in the Adriatic in antiquity; found by chance in international waters; smuggled into the Italian seaside village of Fano; hidden first in a bathtub, then a cabbage field; smuggled and hidden in Brazil; later conserved in Germany and London; and ultimately purchased by the Getty Museum only months after the death of the Trust’s namesake. J. Paul Getty. Getty refused to allow his museum to purchase the statue during his lifetime without a thorough and diligent inquiry into the title history of the Bronze. A step the trustees of the Getty did not take when it acquired the Bronze.

The question is not whether the Bronze was illicit when the Getty trustees made the decision to acquire it. It most certainly was, and still is. The question now is whether the Getty will be able to continue to retain possession. In the press and in cultural property circles the Bronze is considered nearly un-repatriatable given this convoluted history. But an Italian forfeiture action in Pesaro has quietly set in motion a means by which Italy can reclaim the Bronze through a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. This transnational forfeiture marks the creation of a useful new tool in the struggle to repatriate looted and stolen cultural objects. And perhaps more importantly the dispute signals a continuing trend in the importance of domestic law in source nations in cultural heritage law.

 

At present its a work in progress so please get in touch if you have any comments!

Fincham, Derek. Transnational Forfeiture of the “Getty” Bronze, (work in progress, 2013).

Italian Court Confirms Seizure of "Getty Bronze"

The Getty received some very bad news Thursday.

Jason Felch reports on a ruling by an Italian regional magistrate in Pesaro upholding an earlier ruling to seize the bronze statue.

The ruling Thursday by a regional magistrate in Pesaro will likely prolong the legal battle over the statue, a signature piece of the Getty’s embattled antiquities collection whose return Italian authorities have sought for years. “This was the news we were waiting for,” said Gian Mario Spacca, president of the Marche region where the statue was hauled ashore in 1964, in an interview with Italian reporters. “Now we will resume contacts made with the Getty Museum to build a positive working relationship.” Spacca visited the Getty last year hoping to negotiate an agreement to share the statue. But the Getty has made clear it will fight in court to keep the piece and is expected to appeal the ruling to Italy’s highest court.

Using a domestic court to seek the seizure of an illegally exported object from another country has not been attempted before. But Italy has been at the forefront of repatriation strategies. This novel approach could lead to a new legal tool for nations of origin to pursue, if it can convince the Attorney General and a U.S. District Court to enforce this seizure order. The Getty appealed the earlier ruling, and they did so for a reason, this case could set a precedent which would open up museums to seizure suits in the nation of origin.

It should be interesting to watch this dispute continue. For background on this dispute, see here.

  1. Jason Felch, Italian court upholds claim on Getty bronze, L.A. Times, May 4, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-getty-bronze-ruling-20120504,0,2759444.story (last visited May 5, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Chasing Aphrodite Reviewed

 “Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 375 pp).

Jason Felch &
Ralph Frammolino

Disputes over works of art and antiquities take many forms. Nations and individuals with claims to cultural objects pursue their claims in a number of areas; only seldom are these battles seen in courts of law. As a consequence many of the precedents set for party’s actions are seen outside the public view. This underscores the terrific resource which Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino have created with their new book, officially released yesterday.

Their terrific series of investigative reports for the Los Angeles Times served as the jumping off point for the work. That series of articles was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and helped me crystallize much of my thinking about the antiquities trade and the role of art museums. Those reports, though terrific, were limited by the length of a newspaper article, and the authors continued their reporting in the form of this work to allow the space to explore these issues. In so doing they have created what will stand as the definitive account of the troubled times at the Getty from its creation in the 1970s through 2007. The book takes the form of a straightforward and rigorous account of the events which led to first the creation of the wealthiest art-acquiring institution in the world, its unfortunate choices, and its painful public shaming.

The authors maintain their reporters tone, which serves the material well. I think partisans on both sides of the heritage debates will find much to admire in the consistent and accurate depiction of characters and events. One point for which the authors deserve high marks is their description of the laws at issue—they swiftly and accurately describe the complex network of U.S., Italian and International laws without letting it overwhelm the story they are telling. There are also references and notes for further readings. The book maintains a lively and direct style throughout. I was provided an electronic copy of the work, which had no page numbers, so I am unable to reference the quotations below.

The sources for the book are impressive. They include the personal records of Arthur Houghton, who emerges as an early attempted reformer, Getty records, private correspondence, court records in Rome, and interviews with over three-hundred key individuals. The authors note the only important figures they were not able to interview were J. Paul Getty; Jiri Frel, the first antiquities curator at the Getty, who emerges as an early villain; and Marion True, a complicated figure who because of her unwise acquisitions at the Getty all while championing reform leave me feeling more baffled as to her motivations than ever.

From Left: Barbara Whitney, Deborah Gribbon, John Walsh and
Marion True in happier days

One really does wonder at times with the benefit of hindsight what True was thinking. She earned the contempt of her colleagues in the Museum community for aggressively implementing stringent acquisition standards at the Getty and criticizing the acquisitions by other museums, all while directly purchasing objects which were surely looted. The authors really do well in juxtaposing her actions at the Getty with her public rhetoric about the antiquities trade. Their description of her testimony at a 1999 Cultural Property Advisory Committee meeting evaluating an Italian request for import restrictions into the United States really highlights the hypocrisy:

. . . True strongly defended the Italian request. She deemed “improper” the suggestions of some that it was better to have illicit antiquities on well-tended American shelves than to let the careless Italians keep them in dusty exhibits. American museums were just as careless with their objects, True said. Many still didn’t have updated inventories or pictures of their own items . . . True noted that Italy was becoming more generous with loans of ancient art. Policies that expected Italy to be able to document objects that had been looted, like the one the Getty used to rely on, were irretrievably flawed.

Such comments surely did not endear True to her colleagues. In fact, the Getty had violated many legal and ethical rules to acquire their objects, and once they had a renowned collection had declared, under True’s direction, that the rules of the trade had changed, and other institutions must follow the Getty’s lead. This may perhaps explain why the Getty helped support True by paying her legal fees in her criminal trial in Rome, but had distanced itself publicly.

The “Getty Bronze”, one of the
few disputed objects
which has not been returned

Anyone who has followed the Getty and cultural heritage issues in recent years knows well how this story ends, so the most fascinating parts of the book emerge at the beginning, with an account of the chance discovery and smuggling of the “Getty Bronze” from the Adriatic and the town of Fano, and the early days of the Getty.

Those early days set the Getty on what seems to have been a course which could not have avoided trouble. Particulary in chapter four, titled “Worth the Price”. Perhaps because he seems to have offered a great deal of assistance to the authors, Arthur Houghton emerges as an important early figure who attempted to check some of Jiri Frel’s unethical and illegal conduct, particularly in . Early on Houghton recommended that the Getty adopt what he called “optical due diligence” which meant “[t]he Getty should create the appearance that the objects it was acquiring had been carefully vetted, but at the same time avoid ‘certain knowledge’ of where they were actually coming from.” This concept of optical due diligence will likely strike a familiar chord with many observers, but a phrase which I have not seen expressed with such simplicity before.

As the authors note, Houghton was far more concerned with tax fraud that Frel was committing on a grand scale. He would routinely accept donations from wealthy donors, vastly increasing the appraised value of the objects. As the authors note the optical due diligence “was a surprisingly cynical position for Houghton to take, given his moral outrage at Frel’s transgressions. But in his mind, tax fraud and forgery were entirely different from breaking the export laws of a neglectful foreign country, especially when the goal was to educate and enlighten Americans.” In fact, Houghton’s actions were probably consistent with the vast majority of American curators at the time. And given the culture in the early 1980’s, Houghton was probably right that the Getty would likely earn a lot of trouble for itself fast if the IRS discovered the endemic tax fraud.

Aphrodite (or Persephone)
 has been returned to Aidone

Though the Getty now boasts an impressive legacy of research and vast works of art, the early days of the institution are less-than-stellar. One wonders if J. Paul Getty was really the dour, humorless penny-pincher he is depicted to be. The Getty originated not as part of some grand passion for the arts but as a passing hobby of a fantastically rich oil man. As such, those early founders of the Getty trust emerge as important trend-setters who would struggle initially with vast sums of money, and a desire to create one of the world’s foremost cultural institutions. That they succeeded is a testament to the vast wealth they were provided, and also the passion that these objects instill. But the question we must ask is at what cost?

A major theme I see emerging from the book are the incentives which helped fuel this looting. More attention has been directed at recently-acquired objects certainly, but Marion True was an early star in her field because she created galleries and exhibitions of objects with skill in such a way that made the public take notice. The public likes to look at these beautiful objects, and advocates need to continue to do the hard work to essentially train them to be ‘context connoisseurs’, meaning just because an object is beautiful, does nto mean that it should belong in a museum. The path these objects take matters. Had the Getty played by the rules, and not acquired many of these dubious objects, would it have emerged as such an important cultural institution? I’m not sure it would have. We see many poor choices by Marion True in the work, but she also emerges as one of a number of individuals at the Getty, yet she is the only one to have been shamed in such a public way and put on trial. In a perfect world many more probably should have taken blame for these acquisitions.

And the reason for that likely lies in the special esteem that the looted objects instill in us. The Italian government wanted to do everything it could to secure the return of these objects while also ensuring that future illicit activity would not take place, but to secure those returns took many years of hard investigation, and time-consuming and expensive legal negotiation. The Italian team which worked to pressure the Getty and other institutions into returning objects—Maurizio Fiorilli, Paolo Ferri, Francesco Rutelli and others—all emerge as sympathetic figures. Yet they would have had grave difficulty securing the returns had they employed a more direct strategy of prosecution of individuals at the Getty. Their efforts to focus charges on Robert Hecht, Giacomo Medici and Marion True appear to have been an effort to pressure the Getty into returning objects.

The work focuses on the Getty and Marion True and the direct line which can be drawn to looters in Italy. The limestone Aphrodite (which may in fact be Persephone) serves as an apt metaphor for the antiquities trade as a whole. When you heap such esteem on objects, without respecting its past, you risk distorting the object into something it never was. The limestone statue and its marble head, with its stunning depiction of billowing fabric was likely looted from Morgantina in Sicily. The authors introduce the objects at issue well I think, describing their composition, what we know of their history, and also noting what has been destroyed by looters. One feels outrage at the way this statue, perhaps the finest example of classical Greek sculpture outside of London or Greece was smuggled to Switzerland in a carot truck:

Some had seen the body of the statue—without the head—in three pieces at the house of a looter in Gela . . . The huge statue had been toppled over onto a blunt object, breaking it cleanly into three pieces that would be easier to hide during transport. The clean breaks also would make the statue easier to reassemble. The pieces were then driven to Milan, buried under a load of carrots in the back of a Fiat truck, and transported north across the border to Chiasso [Switzerland].

They note as well that Morgantina “proved a bonanza for local looters. After the excavators returned home from a summer of digging, the site fell prey to looters from the nearby hill town of Aidone. [Malcolm] Bell did what he could to fend them off, hiring guards to watch the site during the winter months. But the tombaroli . . . proved tenacious competitors for the relics of the ancient city. Bell once returned to the ruins after Sunday supper and stumbled upon a group hastily emptying a tomb of some 350 objects.” These accounts are disturbing, and it was the Getty’s purchase of objects which, though beautiful and rare, had destroyed context.

Many will likely point to the illegal and unethical conduct of the Getty in the work, and they are right to do so. Yet the archaeological community and nations of origin have much to answer for as well. When these ancient cities are studied, concern needs to be directed at the source to how the locals will react. What good is a trained archaeologist who painstakingly unearths parts of an ancient city, only to have her work undone at night by looters. That really is the legacy of the dispute between Italy and the Getty which the authors skillfully detail. Moving forward how can we envision a collaborative network which follows the law, but also protects sites, allows for professional excavation, and allows us to steward these precious resources for future generations.

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