This bronze statue, known as “the Statue of a Victorious Youth” was purchased by the Getty in 1977 for close to $4 million. It has been attributed to the Greek sculptor Lysippos, the 4th century BC sculptor for Alexander the Great. However, it may be a work by a later Greek sculptor in the same style. Today, the nearly life-size statue is one of the excellent pieces of the Getty’s Greek and Roman collection. It was found in 1964 by fisherman from Fano, somewhere in the Adriatic Sea.
Last Friday, I received an email from Ron Hartwig, of the Getty, complete with a copy of the memo sent last November to the Italian Government regarding this bronze statue. The memo, prepared by the law firm representing the Getty is a detailed account of the legal and factual history surrounding the statue. As he stated to me, “[The Getty] are committed to reaching an agreement with Italy, but doing so based on a scholarly approach, and mindful of relevant law.” That seems quite a reasonable proposition to me, and paints a much different picture than the one many Italian authorities are portraying. Certainly, the Italian Cultural Ministry is laying strong claims to the bronze in the media. Just last week, Francesco Rutelli said of the bronze,
“the bronze Athlete that was hauled up in a fishing net from the waters of the Adriatic sea and later secretly smuggled out of Italy in total violation of its laws. Paradoxically, museum founder John Paul Getty declared before his death that he did not want to acquire that work without its official certification and clear title. This is not a legal question, but a question of ethics. It is a matter of transparency in relations with the public and correct behavior in the antiquities market.”
There are a lot of problems with the antiquities market, but I’m not sure how they are linked to this statue. I’d like to lay out the Getty’s position on the statue, and then evaluate Italy’s claims. It seems clear to me, based on the memo provided, that Italy has a very weak legal and ethical argument to make for the return of the work. The bronze statue was pulled up by Italian fishermen in 1964. The Getty claims it was 30-40 miles off the coast of Italy. The Italian territorial waters extend only 6 nautical out to sea. Italy claims that the statue was found in Italian territorial waters, which would have vested title to the work in the Italian state. However, it seems there was a prosecution in 1966 of the Italians who had purchased the statue. The men were acquitted, and after an appeal, the Court of Appeals of Rome upheld the acquittal because there was no sufficient evidence introduced at the trial that the statue was found in Italian territorial waters. According to the memo, the capatin of the Ferrucio Ferri, Romeo Pirani, has stated unequivocally that the statue was found over 30 miles offshore. Another fisherman on the boat, Igli Rosato, has said the statue was found 32 nautical miles from the shore. It’s surprising to me that this fact has not been given more attention. An Italian court has essentially ruled that there is not enough evidence to support returning the statue.
After the statue was found, it was probably taken ashore to Italy. When it left Italy, it would have probably violated Italian export restrictions. However, courts of one nation do not generally enforce the export restriction of a foreign state. Though American courts recognize foreign patrimony laws, they most certainly do not recognize foreign export restrictions. Thus, in terms of legal claims for the return of the bronze, Italy has no tenable claim, and would almost certainly fail if they chose to bring suit.
What then of the ethical arguments? Certainly, Italy can argue that the statue was illegally exported, and thus should be returned. However, that claim may have been more persuasive when the Getty was considering purchasing the statue. As it stands now, the statue has been displayed by the Getty since 1978, and has been one of their signature pieces, such that the statue is now often referred to as “the Getty Bronze”. Further, the statue was created in Greece, not Italy. If any nation has a claim to it based on the idea that it is a part of their cultural patrimony, it is Greece. Also, the reason the trade in illicit antiquities is so damaging, is that it often causes the loss of the archaeological context surrounding an object. However, those concerns are not present in this case, as the statue was most assuredly a chance find.
In the end, it seems clear to me that the legal and ethical arguments supporting the removal of the statue to Italy are quite tenuous. The question then becomes, why has Italy argued so stringently for the return of the statue? Perhaps they do feel strongly that this statue belongs in an Italian institution, or perhaps they are using it to leverage the Getty into returning other works. In any case, though the Getty could have certainly been more cautious in many of its purchases in the past, it seems to me, based on the evidence I have seen, they are on solid legal and ethical grounds in choosing to proudly display this bronze statue.