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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Be careful what you throw away

Wild story from Earth times:

Vienna – An old cross recovered by an Austrian woman from a garbage container turned out to be an 800-year-old French masterpiece stolen from a Polish collection by the Nazi regime, Austrian police said on Thursday. In 2004, the woman from Zell am See in the province Salzburg got permission from her neighbours to look through a garbage container of things they had thrown out. Among other things, she took an old, gold-coloured cross. As nobody else liked it, the woman kept the gold-plate and enamel cross under her couch until showing it to art experts earlier this year. According to experts from Vienna’s Fine Arts Museum, the piece of garbage turned out to be a passion cross from a manufacturer in Limoges in France made around 1200. Similar pieces fetched up to 400,000 euros (537,000 dollars) at international auctions. Police traced the origin of the cross, showing the piece had been stolen by the Nazi regime from the Polish art collection of Izabella Elzbieta of Czartoryski Dzialinska in 1941. Pieces from the collection were moved from Warsaw to Austria, where the trail ended in 1945. The cross’s fate still remains unclear. The London-based Commission for Looted Art, informed by the Polish authorities, is representing the heirs. The local court in Zell am See decided that for the time being the garbage-treasure was to be kept at the local heritage museum at Leogang, where it could be properly stored.

Pretty cool find. One wonders how much is thrown away that does not get rescued. The case presents some interesting legal issues. I imagine the heirs of the deceased collector would perhaps have a claim. I’m not sure what the relevant limitations period in Austria would be, but it may be that the limitations has expired and the finder would get to retain title.

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Rowan the black Labrador finds 6,000 year-old Axe head

Rowan, an intrepid black lab unearthed a neolithic axe head near Drum Castle, just outside Aberdeen, Scotland. She dropped it on her owner’s foot as they were walking around the wooded estate. The dog’s owner took it back to the Castle, and handed it over to a National Trust for Scotland archaeologist.

I must admit that I’ve taken my own dog, a french spaniel named Morteau, out to walk on this estate many times, but he did not come up with any antiquities for me. He was too concerned with the pheasants apparently.

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