"The game is over…"


Those are the comments of Italian Culture minister Francesco Rutelli in an interview with NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli yesterday. You can hear the story here. Yesterday, Rutelli conducted a press conference threatening serious consequences for the Getty if they do not return 26 disputed antiquities.

The press conference compared images from the trial of convicted dealer Giacomo Medici with images from the Getty’s own website. Rutelli said, “Either there’s an agreement, with the return of all of the works requested by Italy, or the negotiations will be broken off…We have documented the fact that these works were stolen, clandestinely exported and then acquired by the Getty…We have negotiated with great patience for months. The time has now come. The works that were stolen from Italy must be returned.”

Rutelli certainly seems to be ratcheting up the rhetoric to attempt to force the Getty’s hand. It’s not clear that all the 26 objects Rutelli wants repatriated were actually stolen. Take this 4th century B.C. bronze statue, which is Greek by the way, which was found in international waters in 1966, and acquired by the Getty in 1977. The work is undoubtedly Greek, thus if any source nation should be claiming it, it should be Greece. However, the bronze was allegedly brought onto Italian soil, and then clandestinely taken across the border. Under Italian law, the export of these kinds of antiquities is prohibited. However, the mere fact that an object was illegally exported does not necessarily have any implications under US law. As Justice Story expressed in the admiralty prize case The Apollon, “The laws of no nation can justly extend beyond its own territories, except so far as regards its own citizens.” Justice Story was referring mainly to public laws of other nations. I’m not an expert on Italian law, but neither English nor American courts will enforce another nations’s export restrictions. Thus, though Rutelli may argue that the Bronze should be returned, if the Italians choose to seek a remedy in the American courts, the Italians will be quite unlikely to prevail. The best that Rutelli can hope for, is an increase in public pressure which might somehow force the Getty into returning the bronze.

In terms of the other works, we should not be too quick to connect the fact that these objects may have been stolen or looted with any guilty knowledge on the part of the Getty. There may be suspicious circumstances, and the trial of Marion True, the former curator certainly adds to the possibility, but much of the litigation involving illicit cultural property involves two relative innocents. The original owner or possessor of the object, and the current possessor. Often, there are a number of intervening dealers and middlemen through which an object becomes “laundered” in a way, so that in the end it comes out with a relatively clean title. The ultimate solution, I think, is a serious reform of the way the market conducts itself. I do not know the underlying motivations of True or any of the other curators at the Getty, but the Getty is the wealthiest art institution on the planet. If I’m not mistaken, the trust dictates that it has to spend a certain portion of its millions every year. In my view, the market is so flawed, no matter how good your intentions, if you buy objects you are bound to be acquiring some pieces that were gained illicitly. Perhaps that’s a reason not to purchase any items at all until the market sorts itself out. However, that’s a very difficult step to take when you are acquiring world-class objects from some of the greatest artists of the classical world.

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

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