This June I had the chance to visit the town of Aidone in Southern Sicily. It’s a town that I’ve written and thought a lot about, so when we had the opportunity to pop up from teaching in Valletta for a long weekend, we jumped. Its fame comes as the result of a series of looting scandals.
The village and the archaeological site has been written about a great deal, but I haven’t come across many who have actually visited the site and the Muesum. For decades, the site it represented in a tangible way the competing interests of illicit looters and archaeologists. Archaeologists would excavate during the summer, looters would raid the site after they left. Year after year the cycle continued.
If you are reading this you probably have some strong feelings about where the Dea di Aidone (aka the Getty Goddess) should reside. This short essay is a collection of my own thoughts about the ancient site of Morgantina and the nearby town of Aidone.
To give a bit of the history as I understand it, the island of Sicily was subject to the control of many Mediterranean civilizations, and Morgantina’s history reflects this. Morgantina was founded perhaps seven or eight centuries before Christ. At some point it came under the control of Syracuse. Much of what now exists at this site reflects a city at the edge of the ancient Greek world. At some point in the third century BCE Morgantina may have chosen to throw their lot in with Carthage, a choice which likely proved costly when it was finally captured by Rome. Morgantina may have fallen on hard times, and the city itself seems to have been largely deserted by the First Century CE.
Thesite has been the subject of a number of archaeological excavations, mainly by American archaeologists, and also the target of antiquities looters who ultimately sent objects on through the illicit black market in antiquities. Many of the most beautiful items looted ended up in American Museums, notably the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of art. This seems to me to be a notable correlation. How is it an accident that most summers for the last 60 years have seen american archaeologists digging at Morgantina, and also the museums of the United States acquiring works from the very site. Assigning blame to the archaeologists who dig there, the local officials for protecting the site, or the museum curators who
acquire this material seems unproductive for this short essay. But visiting the Museum in Aidone and the site of Morgantina I was struck by what a colossal policy failure the looting represents.
Geoff Edgers managed to snag an interview with Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum, and the subject of an antiquities-trafficking trial in Rome. A trial that even Paolo Ferri admits was only to “show an example of what Italy could do.”
I don’t imagine many will change their view of True based on the reporting or her comments. There is nothing especially revelatory here—perhaps its best viewed as a reporting coup by Edgers in getting access to True. But its also an initial first step by True in seeking to get her own book published. The piece even links to a few small excerpts of her memoirs. Here are the handful of paragraphs which stood out to me:
A decade after her downfall, True knows that she was singled out, with Hecht, by the Italians to strike fear in American museums. The strategy worked. The Getty and others, fearing prosecution, returned hundreds of objects worth millions of dollars.
True was never found guilty — the trial ended in 2010 without a judgment – and the curator maintains her innocence. But today, for the first time, she is talking openly about the way she and her museum world colleagues operated. Yes, she did recommend the Getty acquire works she knew had to have been looted. That statement, though, comes with a qualifier:
If she found out where a work had been dug up from, she pushed for its return. In contrast, many of her colleagues did little, if anything, to research a work’s source. None of them were put on trial.
The pursuit of True was aided by raids of dealers and a massive leak of internal Getty documents to a pair of Los Angeles Times reporters. That paper trail linked looted sites in Italy to the museum’s Malibu galleries.
True plainly did recommend the acquisition of looted material. A revelation that few if any in the museum community have acknowledged publicly. But the fact that Edgers fails to acknowledge in his reporting is the damage done to future sites. The sums of money paid by the Getty fueled more looting.
James Cuno, President of the Getty Trust, has authored a short essay revisiting his arguments against repatriation. Those familiar with his arguments will see many of the same kinds of arguments he has made in the past. Mainly he criticizes repatriation as an exercise in nationalism:
Such claims on the national identity of antiquities are at the root of many states’ cultural property laws, which in the last few decades have been used by governments to reclaim objects from museums and other collections abroad. Despite UNESCO’s declaration that “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity,” governments are increasingly making claims of ownership of cultural property on the basis of self-proclaimed and fixed state-based identities. Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image — Egypt with the Pharaonic era, Iran with ancient Persia, Italy with the Roman Empire. These arguments amount to protectionist claims on culture. Rather than acknowledge that culture is in a state of constant flux, modern governments present it as standing still, in order to use cultural objects to promote their own states’ national identities.
Though he acknowledges the looting and destruction that has taken place and this was the impetus for a number of returns from his current institution, he’s attempting it seems to hold a firm line against calls for repatriation which pre-date 1970. While he does obliquely criticize looting, he offers no other solution to the problem. How can we prevent site destruction and looting without national legislation and domestic initiatives (which he has called nationalistic)? That question is left largely unanswered. He does make calls for more Universal museums in nations of origin.
He ends with a call for exchange and cooperation:
For encyclopedic museums to fulfill their promise of cultural exchange, they should be established everywhere in the world where they do not now exist. And existing encyclopedic museums should aid in their development. Already, there are laudable examples of how great museums in wealthy countries can foster a more comprehensive kind of cosmopolitanism. The British Museum established a program in 2008 to promote partnerships with institutions in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In addition to loaning collections and exhibitions from British museums, it focused on training: in conservation, curating, and archiving. In all, some 29 countries were involved. The program was supported by the British government’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. But after three years, the British government cut the program’s funding. The partnerships continue on a smaller scale supported by grant funding, including from the Getty Foundation.
This process of exchange and cooperation should build trust among museums and national authorities. It will be a long, slow process, but if successful, it would lay the foundation for a greater understanding of the values represented by the encyclopedic museum: openness, tolerance, and inquiry about the world, along with the recognition that culture exists independent of nationalism.
Cuno, James. “Culture War” Foreign Affairs, December 2014.
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.
Rachel Donadio reports for the New York Times on a number of repatriated antiquities back in their nation of origin. The list includes la dea di Aidone in Sicily, the Weary Heracles in Turkey, the Lysi frescoes on Cyprus, and the Euphronios Krater in the Villa Giulia.
In rare cases, a repatriation is arranged so that a collector knowingly buys works identified as stolen to protect them from being further damaged or broken up. That happened in 1985, when the art collector Dominique de Menil bought some 13th-century Byzantine frescoes from a Turkish art dealer after the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and government officials there identified them as having been stolen.
When she was first offered the works, depicting Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Mary with the Christ child surrounded by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, Mrs. de Menil was skeptical about their provenance. She quietly approached the Church of Cyprus, which said the frescoes had been secreted out of the apse and the dome of the church of St. Euphemianos in Lyssi, in a part of Cyprus that had been annexed by Turkey in 1974.
Mrs. de Menil pledged to buy them — and return them to Cyprus in 20 years. The Menil Collection in Houston paid for the frescoes’ restoration, which took years. It built a bespoke minimalist space for them next to its Rothko Chapel and put them on display there in 1998. Themuseum had been hoping that Cyprus would extend the agreement and allow them to keep the works on view.
But in 2012, Cyprus asked for them back, in a climate in which the new government and leadership of the Church of Cyprus have been increasingly aggressive in their campaign to call attention to the deconsecrated Christian religious sites in the areas of Cyprus that Turkey still controls.
The Menil Collection made good on its promise. “Of course we were sad, but in the end we were very proud because ethically, from a moral point of view, this was exactly what needed to happen,” said Josef Helfenstein, the director of the Menil Collection.
The frescoes are now on view in the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation Byzantine Museum and Gallery in Nicosia, Cyprus’s second-most visited museum, “until the day they will be put back in the chapel,” said John Eliades, the director of the Byzantine Museum. That might not be so easy.
Rachel Donadio, Repatriated Works Back in Their Countries of Origin, N.Y. Times, April 17, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/arts/design/repatriated-works-back-in-their-countries-of-origin.html.
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.
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!