Monteleone Di Spoleto Wants Its Chariot Back


This exquisite bronze chariot was discovered in 1902 by a farmer clearing some of his land. Today’s New York Times has an interesting article by Elisabetta Povoledo on the small Northern-Italian village which wants this chariot returned.

The 2,600 year-old bronze chariot was assembled in 1903, but has recently been reassembled to better show what Etruscan chariots probably looked like at the time. Carol Vogel had a nice article on the new reconstruction last week here. It’s also got an excellent slide show of the chariot. The image above shows the chariot before the reconstruction, the picture below is after.

As the Mayor of Monteleone Di Spoleto Nando Durastanti says, “I’m very sorry for the Met because they’ve done a great job in making the most of the chariot.” This is not a claim pursued by the Italian Culture Ministry, rather mayor Durastanti enlisted an Atlanta lawyer named Tito Mazzetta to pursue its claims.

Mazzetta argues that Italian law in 1902 dictated that the chariot was the property of the state, and he uses a decision by the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University which returned an Egyptian Mummy in 2004 even though it had been exported to North America in 1864. Mazzetta wants another exception carved out in the already exception-ridden statute of limitations provisions. I’m not sure what kind of exception he hopes to carve out, but I think he’s going to have a difficult time with it. The Demand and Refusal rule which is the law in the State of New York triggers a limitations period when an object that has been missing is demanded from its current possessor. That is the most generous limitations rule that I am aware of in the US. In this case, the Italian State knew about the chariot in 1904. The New York Times has an article on Feb. 16, 1904 in which Italian authorities were critical of the chariot’s export. In any case, it seems that an equitable defense such as laches would certainly step in and prevent a repatriation.

This is a difficult battle for Mayor Durastanti, given that over a century has passed with the chariot on display at the Met, and the Italian Culture Ministry does not support the repatriation. His claim is an ethical one. However those claims need public pressure to be effective. Without the support of the Italian Culture Ministry, that is a nearly impossible battle to win in my view.

As Maurizio Firorilli, a lawyer with the Italian Culture Ministry said, “the preconditions that have guided other negotiations don’t exist in this case.” I think that is right, even though Mazzetta still attempts to stake the moral high ground in the dispute by saying “When lawyers challenged the slaver laws or fought for equal rights for women, people thought they were out of their minds … Laws should be changed. The crimes of the past should not be condoned.” That may be true, but this antiquity seems a very different situation from something like slavery.

The chariot was found by chance by an Italian farmer who didn’t know what he had found. He sold the bronze chariot as scrap metal so that he could re-tile his roof. Perhaps the chariot should be returned to Italy, but the World’s museums cannot be emptied of all antiquities and works of art which originated in another nation.

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

More on Italy’s Aggressive Repatriation Campaign

Two articles from today’s New York Times further highlight Italy’s aggressive repatriation policies of late.

First, a new sculpture, the statute of Eirene, pictured here, is on extended temporary display until 2009 in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Italy agreed to loan the sculpture after the Museum agreed to return antiquities to Italy. The Museum of Fine Arts held a news conference yesterday with Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli to announce the display. The Met will also receive a temporary exhibition of a 4th century B.C. drinking cup, called a kylix. However it has chosen to downplay the agreement. The granting of these two temporary exhibitions by Italy, further underscores its dispute with the Getty over antiquities. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Met have chosen to cooperate with Italy, and have been granted these works. It gives added emphasis to Italy’s threatened cultural embargo against the Getty, after negotiations broke off between the two parties.

Second, a private collector has been asked by Italy to return 20 artifacts it claims were illicitly excavated. The collector, Shelby White and her late husband, Leon Levy, acquired a significant collection of antiquities over the last 30 years. Maurizio Fiorilli, a lawyer with Italy’s Culture Ministry, has asked Ms. White to return the objects. The Italians have acknowledged that they do not have much legal pressure to force the restitution of these objects. However exerting public pressure may be their best chance at repatriating these objects. Highlighting Italy’s claims is a study conducted by two British archaeologists, Christopher Chippindale and David Gill. It suggested that 84% of objects owned by Ms. White and her husband which were exhibited at the Met in a special 1990 exhibition were illicitly excavated. Whether this Italian campaign will prove successful and will have an impact on the demand for illicit antiquities remains to be seen. It is an interesting move by Italy to attempt to convince private collectors that purchasing these objects without a solid provenance may indeed be unethical, and may be damaging the very tradition and heritage which they wish to preserve and own. Some commentator have argued for stiffer criminal penalties for collectors of these objects. That seems like a difficult thing to enact though, as these individuals are generally the pillars of their community. After all, Ms. White donated $200 million to NYU for a new antiquities department. A more effective approach may be a campaign to associate collecting of unprovenanced antiquities with the destruction of a nation’s heritage and archaeological record.

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

Met Declines to Exhibit a Grosz


The NY Times’ Robin Pogrebin reported yesterday that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has declined to borrow a work by German Expressionist George Grosz. The work, “The Poet Max Hermann-Neisse” (1927) is the subject of yet another Nazi repatriation dispute. The Met has declined to exhibit the work, and substituted another, because the Grosz estate is contemplating a claim for restitution. The work belongs to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Grosz estate has been in negotiations with them for three years.

MoMA is one of the many museums which lists provenance information for its works on its website. The provenance for this work is here. The estate claims that the works had to be sold very quickly, and at a very low price because Grosz and his art dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, had to flee Germany because of Nazi persecution. Interestingly, only Flechtheim was Jewish. It was the nature of Grosz’s opinions and art which caused his flight.

Initially, one might wonder how the Grosz estate could have a tenable claim all these years later. The work has been in MoMA’s possession since 1952. Apparently, Grosz saw the work exhibited there in 1958, shortly before his death. Statutes of limitations generally prevent claims from being brought after a period of time. They are based on the policy that as time passes, a fair adjudication of the issues becomes more difficult. New York courts have adopted the demand and refusal rule in interpreting statutes of limitations in the context of illicit art. The rule measures the accrual of a cause of action based on a plaintiff’s actions. To commence an action to recover property from a good faith purchaser, an original owner must prove that the current possessor refused to return the property after a demand by the claimant. See Menzel v. List 22 A.D.2d 647, 253 N.Y.S.2d 43 (1963). Thus it seems that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until 2003, when the Grosz estate first approached MoMA about the return of the work. Thus, in theory at least, they could still bring a restitution claim in time.

However, the substance of that claim seems a bit difficult for the Grosz estate. The works were sold legally (Nicholas Katzenbach, a former attorney general, and an undersecretary of State for the LBJ administration investigated the claim for MoMA and recommended it be rejected), and MoMA would likely have a very good laches defense, which basically serves to protect defendants where a potential plaintiff has unnecessarily delayed bringing a legal action. Also, the value of these works may not be high enough to warrant a protracted legal dispute. A rough estimate I’ve seen thrown around is $3 million. If a work falls short of that standard, bringing a legal claim may not be financially feasible. This work has been estimated at $2 million in today’s market, but there is another work under dispute in MoMA’s collection as well. Of course, the Grosz estate may not be simply concerned with the financial implications of the suit.

Why then did the Met refuse to exhibit the work? It may simply be a matter of not wanting to be associated with the bad publicity. The headline that they are exhibiting a work with a Nazi repatriation issue may have raised an issue that was more controversial than they were willing to take on. However, it seems like the dispute is getting more coverage because of the refusal. In any event, I do not know all of the facts , but the Grosz estate may have a very difficult time prevailing, considering the artist himself saw the work exhibited in 1958 and did not have any misgivings at that point.

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

Getty Trial Resumes in Italy


The New York Times devoted a short brief on the so-called Getty trial wednesday. After a long summer hiatus, the trial of former Getty Museum curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht continued Wednesday in Rome, with the testimony of Fausto Guarnieri, who once worked for Italy’s art-theft squad. The statue is only on e of the objects at issue in the prosecution of True and Hecht, who are accused of dealing in stolen artifacts. A 1939 Italian law vests title to all unearthed antiquities in the State.

The statue of Aphrodite, pictured here, was purchased for $18 million by the Getty in 1988. It dates from the 5th century BC, near a Greek settlement in Sicily known as Venere di Morgantina. Italian authorities were alerted in 1986 by rival looters, who were angry that the statue had been sold too cheaply. Guarnieri testified that 20 years ago tomb robbers led him to a site in Sicily where the statue had been unearthed.

The trial is a tremendous black eye for the Getty, as the sculpture is a centerpiece of the museum’s antiquities collection in Malibu. True’s defense counsel are arguing that the sale of the statue was met with little official interest by Italian authorities in 1988 when the sale took place. Apparently, the statue was not on the official list of stolen objects when the Getty made official inquiries at the time of the sale. It would have been difficult though, as there was no record of what the statue actually looked like. Prosecutors are relying on scientific data which points to the statue’s origin in Morgantina.

This trial will of course be watched very closely by museums all over the world with Italian antiquities. Though I failed to grasp it when I posted comments about the decision by the Museum of Fine arts in Boston’s decision to return 13 antiquities to Italy, the True prosecution may have been at least part of the impetus behind the decision. Also, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently returned 21 pieces to Italy.

I’m not sure what this prosecution means for the illicit trade. Certainly, it seems likely that museums will be far more careful when they acquire Italian antiquities. However, it seems likely that the looters will continue their work, they just will sell to dealers and individuals rather than museums. Is the public good being served by having these objects in the hands of an individual rather than a museum? Perhaps not; but however nefarious we might believe the actions of True and Hecht were in this case, wasn’t there a tremendous value in allowing the public to view these objects? Its the same kind of argument that Greece and the British Museum have been fighting over for centuries in relation to the Parthenon Sculptures/Elgin Marbles. There are no clear answers. However, the Parthenon Sculptures have been resting in London for centuries now, while the Italian antiquites are a fairly recent acquisition by the Getty. Conversely, the archaeological context was lost when the statue was unearthed twenty years ago. However, was there anything in that soil record about Greek civilization that we don’t already know? We can’t be sure. At the very least, the idea of a museum acquiring a very valuable object which had been looted strikes me as distasteful. It certainly reveals a troubling part of museum acquisition which I suspect the vast majority of visitors are unaware of.

What is certain, is that Italian authorities are pursuing an aggressive policy of pursuing antiquities found/looted/unearthed within its borders. This will likely diminish the prices which sellers of certain questionable objects can expect to receive for their finds in the short-term. But it might increase the price which may be paid for objects with a clean provenance. An unintended consequence may be the decrease in opportunities for visitors and residents California, Boston, and New York to see these examples of Greek and Roman culture.

Perhaps the way forward is an increase in travelling exhibitions, but there are financial, logistical and other drawbacks to that remedy as well. The one thing all parties involved in this prosecution, and the wider debate can certainly agree on, is that these are extremely valuable and beautiful objects.

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