Fight Over Getty Museum’s Greek Statue Isn’t Over

(CN) — A legal fight over whether a prized ancient Greek statue at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles should be returned to Italy will head to Europe’s highest court, an attorney said Friday in Rome.

“Statue of a Victorious Youth, 300-100 B.C.” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. (AP file photo/Nick Ut )

The legal wrangling centers on a life-sized bronze statue of a naked Olympic athlete called the “Victorious Youth.” It is believed to have been made by Lysippos, Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor.

The Italian government claims the statue belongs to Italy’s cultural heritage and should be returned to Italy. It was found by two Italian fishermen in 1964, then allegedly sold illegally to art dealers.

On Nov. 30 last year, Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, agreed. Last week the court issued a scathing 47-page decision rejecting the Getty Museum’s claims to rightful ownership.

On Friday, Alfredo Gaito, a lawyer working on behalf of the museum in Rome, said the ruling would be appealed to the European Court of Justice.

“Things don’t finish here,” he said in a telephone interview with Courthouse News. He called the Court of Cassation’s ruling “hardly convincing,” on a number of grounds.

He said the Getty’s claims of ownership hold up under international laws governing private property, and that a proper trial to establish whether the Getty broke the law should take place before the statue can be seized.

“I’m not a magician, I can’t predict the future, but there are a lot of perplexities with this case,” Gaito said. He said an appeal to the European high court must be made within six months of the ruling by the Italian court.

The statue was hauled up from the depths of the Adriatic Sea in the nets of two Italian fishermen in the summer of 1964 and then sold to antique dealers. In 1977, the Getty bought it for $4 million. It has become a centerpiece of the museum.

But under Italian law, the statue should have been handed over to Italian authorities when it was found because of its cultural importance, the Italian court said in its decision, issued in Italian.

The ruling said the fishermen hooked the statue in waters off the coast of Pedaso in the region of Le Marche. The court said the fishermen did not report finding the statue to authorities and hid it at a friend’s house before selling it to three entrepreneurs.

In 1965, Italian police, the carabinieri, became aware of the statue’s existence and began looking for it, the court said.

Italian prosecutors filed charges against the three businessmen and a priest who allegedly hid the statue in his house, the court said.

All four men were eventually cleared of wrongdoing due to lack of evidence about what they had found and where it had been found, the ruling states.

Italian police continued searching for the statue, which by 1972 had ended up in the possession of an antiques dealer in Munich, Germany, the court said. But German authorities determined that the dealer, Heinz Herzer, could not be extradited for the crime of possessing smuggled art works, according to the ruling.

Herzer then sold the statue to a Luxembourg company called Artemis. It was then sold to the Getty and by Aug. 15, 1977, had arrived in the United States, according to court documents.

U.S. authorities declined requests by Italian authorities to investigate the matter, according to the ruling. Italian authorities then closed their investigation.

In 2007, the case was reopened by the public prosecutor’s office in Pesaro, a city in Le Marche. In 2010, an Italian judge ordered the statue to be seized, sparking the long-running legal fight.

The Getty’s attorneys have disputed the claims by Italian authorities on numerous grounds and say the law is on their side. They say the statue was found in international waters and that Italy’s high court ruled in 1968 that there was no evidence the statue belonged to Italy.

The museum also claims that the statue has never been part of Italy’s cultural heritage and that its accidental discovery by Italian fishermen “does not make the statue an Italian object.”

But the high court ruled that the statue belongs to Italy because it was transferred from an Italian vessel to Italy. It said the statue should be returned to Italy because it was illegally exported without paying customs duties and because the statue is an important cultural piece of Italy’s heritage.

Although the statue is Greek in origin, the court said a “cultural continuity” between Roman and Greek cultures makes the statue important to Italy. The court noted that many historical Greek figures were born on the Italian peninsula in Greek colonies. It said that the statue was likely aboard a ship bound for the Italian territory when it sank.

The statue shows an athlete crowning himself with an olive wreath, an award victors received at the Olympic Games in ancient Greece. According to the Getty, the statue’s eyes likely were inlaid with colored stone or glass paste and the statue’s nipples inlaid with copper.

In 2007, the Getty, without admitting any wrongdoing, agreed to return 40 ancient treasures in exchange for the long-term loans of other artifacts, according to The Associated Press. Italy and the Getty have since worked on numerous collaborations in restoration, exhibition and research projects.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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