There are always valid reasons to repatriate looted artworks to their rightful national owners.
Greece is right to claim the Parthenon Marbles and India rightfully claimed (and got back) the Lingodhbhavamurti statue which was stolen from an Indian temple in the 1980s and on display at a museum in Alabama.
Of course, there must be a balance between this practice and artwork that rightfully deserves to be in a museum or gallery far away from its place of origin– provided it was done in a legal way.
Some of my best learning experiences in Classical Greek and Byzantine art were at exhibitions and events at the Met in New York and the Art Institute in Chicago– both of which have extensive Greek art collections and both of which far away from the places of origin of their Greek art collections.
The Italian government, however, is being both illogical and unreasonable in its quest to take back the Greek statue “Victorious Youth” from the Getty in Los Angeles.
Following a court ruling claiming ownership, Italy will now seek enforcement of its unilateral legal judgement in an American court.
First and foremost the Victorious Youth that is on display at the Getty isn’t an Italian statue. Not even remotely Italian.
It’s a Greek bronze statue believed to have been masterfully sculpted by Lysippus, who worked around the time of Alexander the Great.
In unknown events, the statue was lost at sea. A shipwreck, perhaps, when Ancient Greek colonies shared trade, commerce and art from Athens to the southern shores of what is today (but wasn’t then) Italy.
We will never know how the Victorious Youth ended up at the bottom of the sea a few thousand years ago but even this is irrelevant to the fact that its creator and style (and probably origin) were all Greek.
In 1964 the statue was fished out of the ocean by Italian fisherman from the village of Fano in the Adriatic Sea.
The fishy fisherman were hoping for a pay day themselves and hid the statue in a cabbage field, before selling it (illegally) to a local art dealer who hid it in the home of Father Giovanni Nagni, a local Catholic priest, before (illegally) selling it to an art collector in Milan.
The statue was snuck out of the country without the knowledge or permission of Italian authorities, or an export license, which is required for such artwork. It made its way to an art dealer in Munich, Germany and was eventually purchased in the late 1970s by the Getty for almost $4 million.
This is where the Italian government’s own legal claims dating to the 1970s might come back to haunt them in their legal claims today.
The Italian government charged the fisherman with handling stolen property, and were convicted. But the ruling was overturned by Italy’s highest court because, according to court records, the prosecution could not prove that the statue was recovered in Italian waters.
This ruling from the 1970s moots Italy’s sole claim to ownership to this statue, that is based on the location where it was found, since an Italian court itself claimed and proved that the fisherman could not prove that the statue was found in Italian waters.
The good news is that the Getty isn’t bending to the Italians on this particular matter.
Lisa Lapin, Vice President of Communications at the Getty fired back at the Italians when the court announced its ruling.
“We will continue to defend our legal right to the statue. The law and facts in this case do not warrant restitution to the Italian government. The statue is of ancient Greek origin, was found in international waters in 1964, and was purchased by the Getty Museum in 1977, years after Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, concluded in 1968 there was no evidence that the statue belonged to Italy.”
Furthermore– and this is where I agree with the Getty mores than for any legal ruling or court evidence.
“Moreover, the statue is not and has never been part of Italy’s cultural heritage. Accidental discovery by Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object. Found outside the territory of any modern state, and immersed in the sea for two millennia, the Bronze has only a fleeting and incidental connection with Italy.”
The Getty proudly displays the Victorious Youth as a Greek statue and considers it one of its most prized pieces. The bronze artwork “has never been part of Italy’s cultural heritage” and thus, doesn’t deserve to claim it or own it.
The issue of whether or not the statue should be returned to Greece– well that’s a whole other argument with nothing to do with the legal battle between Italy and the Getty.
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