Tag Archives: Greece

An Ancient Bronze Headache for The Getty

If like most people you enjoy collecting things – baseball cards, stamps, snow globes of the world, etc. – chances are you built your collection in a law-abiding way.  You received these items as gifts, or you bought them from a shop, market, garage sale, etc.  At the time, you probably didn’t stop to think about where the person selling you the item picked it up; if you did, chances are you dismissed the question from your mind fairly quickly.

Yet when it comes to extremely expensive objects, such as items from ancient cultures, international law is often not willing to dismiss that question so easily.  Countries know that antiquities are part of their cultural heritage, and as crass as it may seem to observe the fact, cultural heritage can translate into tax revenue.  Having magnificent, ancient objects to put on display in state-run museums will attract more visitors, and therefore more income, in the form of admissions fees, taxes, and externalities to local businesses such as hotels and restaurants, who themselves will then be taxed as well.  An example of this which is very much in the international legal and art news right now involves a bronze statue that has been on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for decades, but which has been in the midst of a sort of custody dispute with the Italian government, at the instigation of a local museum group, for the past five years.

In 1964, Italian fishermen working on the Adriatic Sea discovered a well-preserved Ancient Greek bronze of a young man, presumed to be the figure of an athlete, since he is crowning himself with a laurel wreath as the victors in the original Olympic games used to do.  Commonly referred to as “The Victorious Youth” or “The Athlete of Fano”, after the nearest town to where he was found, it was probably cast sometime between the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C.  So few Greek bronzes from the ancient world have survived, that this was a truly remarkable find.

The fishermen in question sold the statue to a local art and antiques dealer, maintaining that they had found it in international waters; the piece eventually left the country and passed into the international art market.  A few years later, the men who had sold on the statue were charged with theft by the Italian government, since any ancient object discovered in Italian territory is rightfully the property of the state, not only under Italian law but in fact in many other countries around the world as well.  Although the men were initially convicted, those convictions were later overturned.  An appeals court found that the prosecution had failed to establish the most critical element of their case: i.e., that the statue had been found within Italian territory, and was therefore Italian state property.  Without that proof, there could be no presumption of culpability of theft from the Italian government on the part of the sellers.

Several owners later, the Getty purchased the bronze in London for $3.95 million in 1977.  They did so even though a few years earlier, the museum’s founder J. Paul Getty had passed up the chance to buy the statue when he smelled something fishy about the question of legal ownership.  After Getty’s death, the curators ignored his caution and went ahead and bought the piece anyway.  The statue made its way to Los Angeles, and became one of the greatest prizes of the museum’s collection.

Now we fast-forward to 2006, and an effort by the Italian government to crack down on activities like looting, grave robbery, and the illegal export of antiquities.  Italy contacted the Getty and alleged that a number of items in the museum’s collection had been illegally exported from Italy, and demanded the return of these objects; one of the objects on the list was “The Victorious Youth”.  While the museum complied with most of the requests, it refused to return the bronze, saying that the issue had been decided back when the appellate court quashed the convictions of the men who originally sold the piece into the stream of commerce.  Since then, the statue has been the subject of ongoing litigation between the Getty and the Italian government.

Most recently, on Monday of this week the parties were expecting to argue before the Italian Supreme Court in Rome, after a lower court judge issued a ruling ordering that the statue be returned to Italy – a ruling which the Getty appealed.  Unfortunately, though perhaps not surprisingly given the pace of the Italian justice system, the panel charged with hearing the case decided to boot the matter to another department, meaning that the litigation will go on for the an unknown additional length of time.  To date, then, the ultimate fate of the “Victorious Youth” remains in question.

As interesting as the legal side of this case is, including the philosophical and public policy questions it raises about our right to own objects, from a practical if not a jurisprudential point of view, I suspect the Getty will eventually be compelled to send the bronze back.  Even were the court to find that the previous judicial precedent regarding the statue’s aquatic origins was correct, that alone would be no guarantee that thereafter things would be smooth sailing. After all, the Italian authorities could begin to make life very difficult for the Getty, such as if the Getty wanted to borrow a work for a joint exhibition with one of the Italian museums.  Perhaps that is a cynical view, but again, it is a foreseeable result in this case. Regardless of the decision, it will be fascinating to read when it finally comes down.

"The Victorious Youth" by Unknown Sculptor (c. 300-100 B.C.) The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

“The Victorious Youth” by Unknown Greek Sculptor (c. 300-100 B.C.)
The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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“Heaven and Earth” at the National Gallery

The National Gallery of Art’s current show on the art of Byzantium, “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”, gathers together a number of rare and interesting works which have never visited the United States before.  It is a comprehensive exhibition, covering nearly 1500 years of art from the pagan and Greco-Roman to the Christian and early Renaissance in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, from icons and sculpture, to jewelry, textiles, and ecclesiastical objects.  Even if you are not a Christian yourself, for those interested in history and sociological exchanges between cultures, this show is well worth a visit.

To be frank, Byzantine art does not hold a great deal of appeal for me, generally speaking.  I say this as someone who owns about half a dozen reproductions of icons.  Perhaps being of a popish persuasion, although I appreciate the images as an aid to meditation, they do not speak to me in the same way they would to my Christian brethren in the East.

That being said, the intersection of Western and Eastern Christian art, particularly in the Early Renaissance and around the time of the Council of Florence, when there was a reasonable attempt at reuniting the two “lungs” of the Western and Eastern Churches, does hold a certain historical appeal.  Of all the pieces in the National Gallery’s show, the one which spoke most clearly to this cross-pollination, and which I made a bee-line to examine in person, is the “Crucifixion” by the Cretan painter Pavias Andreas (c. 1450-1505) on loan from the National Gallery in Athens.  Hung in the final salon of the exhibition, in a section appropriately entitled “Crosscurrents”, the collection of works in this room demonstrates just this sort of exchange of ideas, and this panel in particular makes it readily apparent, from the mixture of figures dressed in Western and Eastern fashions, and the fact that the artist signed his name in Latin, meaning it was most likely commissioned by an Italian patron.

In this “Crucifixion” we see many pieces of iconography related to the Passion. All three of the crucified have died, and if the viewer was in any doubt as to which of the two thieves crucified with Christ was the good one, we can see that Christ is oriented toward the thief on His right, whose tiny soul is being taken up into Heaven as Christ promised.  The soul of the bad thief, which is emerging from his eye socket – according to pious legend the bad thief’s eyes were plucked out by crows – finds a black, horned little demon waiting for him to take him to Hell.

The earthquake described in the Gospels as having taken place at the moment of Jesus’ death has revealed a skull at the base of Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull”, although the inclusion of a skull in the painting was not meant to be a pun.  It is commonly accepted that the term “Place of the Skull” refers to the shape of the hill of Mount Calvary itself, but there was an earlier tradition that Calvary was the place where the skull of Adam was interred.  This made Christ dying upon the spot where the first man was buried all the more significant.

One could spend hours studying all of the detail in the painting, and still come back to it to learn more.  The artist depicts the Crucifixion with a truly mesmerizing fusion of Eastern and Western ideas and stylistic elements, and a riot of activity and color.  It is the sort of work which the great, rather odd, Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch, an exact contemporary of Pavias Andreas albeit working hundreds of miles away, would have acknowledged as being that of a kindred spirit to his own.

The piece is thusly described in this slideshow of some of the highlights of the exhibition in The Washington Post which, as usual in the “mainstream” media, entirely misses the point:

An icon of the Crucifixion, made in the latter half of the 15th century, qualifies as beautiful without reference to its religious content, critic Philip Kennicott says. “Never mind the stifling fear of hell promulgated in the lower register, where demons cavort beneath a skull at the base of the cross. Even without engaging with its religious particulars, one senses the presence of something calm and essential in a sea of details and a riot of activity.”

It is always amusing when secular art critics make value judgments on sacred Christian art which they do not understand, particularly since the point of the picture is not the “stifling fear of [H]ell”, but rather Christ’s triumph over it.  The “cavorting” described represents the terror of the demons in realizing that they have lost, and God has won.  Be that as it may, even though it is not the most prominently displayed of the many works in this exhibition, it is definitely worth seeking out, if you are able to catch the show.

“Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”, is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until March 2, 2014.  Following its run at the NGA, it will travel to The Getty in Los Angeles from April 9 – August 25, 2014.

Detail of "The Crucifixion" by Pavias Andreas (2nd Half of the 15th Century) National Gallery, Athens

Detail of “The Crucifixion” by Pavias Andreas (2nd Half of the 15th Century)
National Gallery, Athens


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Basking in the News Cycle

Good morning to you, gentle reader.  While you were sleeping, Greek election results came in and seem to point to a political party that will continue on the road mapped out by Brussels and Berlin, but they will still need to form a coalition to govern.  Russia is sending extra forces to its military base in Syria, ostensibly to protect Russian citizens and interests there. No one seems to have any idea about what is going on in Egypt, after yesterday’s presidential elections and quasi-coup by the military.  And Mr. Obama is  playing golf in Cabo  attending a G20 summit in Mexico.

Enjoying your Monday, yet?

The reason Monday morning news reports are often so shocking to our senses, I suspect, is the fact that so many people go into news withdrawal over the weekend, and news outlets are often happy to oblige in this regard, particularly on television. The phenomenon of the Friday news cycle, where journalists know they have to get headlines to readers before the weekend hits, means that oftentimes weekend news broadcasts are full of fluffy reports with no real value, for over 48 hours. We are presented with “news” about contradicting scientific studies claiming that milk – or fish oil or wheat germ or pop tarts – is good for you AND will give you cancer, or we have to sit through an interview with the owner of the world’s largest pet gila monster.

Meantime, the rest of the world is still going through upheaval, which does not stop simply because it is after 5:00 pm on a Friday on the East Coast of the United States. Smart people know this, of course, but it is difficult to find a news outlet in the (allegedly) mainstream American media to provide this type of information. Fortunately, for those who primarily rely on new and social media for their news headlines and reports, this kind of mush-for-brains attitude toward the American news consumer can be easily circumvented.

One way to look at world events is how London Mayor Boris Johnson does, in part, in a piece published today by The Telegraph looking at what the future holds for Greece.  Mr. Johnson treats some of the same themes I did in yesterday’s blog post, but of course does so rather better than I did. He maintains that the fallacy underlying modern thought, and which is implicit in reporting on Greece, for example, is the notion that progress is inevitable.  Additionally, he points out that “history teaches us that the tide can suddenly and inexplicably go out, and that things can lurch backwards into darkness and squalor and appalling violence.” We can already see this process well-underway in Syria, for example.

Therefore I challenge the reader to consider whether, rather than basking in the sun all weekend like the aforementioned gila monster, it might not be a good idea to do some reading – and viewing, when you can – of events that will affect you and the values which matter to you. That way, come the Monday morning headlines, you will be better-prepared to engage in discussion, debate, and, where necessary, taking action. As Mr. Johnson points out, progress is not inevitable, nor is all so-called progress desirable: let us not fall asleep at our posts merely because of an editorial decision made in New York or elsewhere to stop a news cycle.

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An Empire of the Unwilling

In his influential but highly-overrated work, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, the English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) maintained that “[i]f a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” Personally, I rather think we are better off now, when we can reasonably expect not to die from some microbial infection every time we drink a glass of water. Be that as it may, Gibbon’s point is that there was a window of time during the Roman Empire when things seemed to be going well, at least for a significant number of people who chose to remain docile towards their Roman overlords.

As I write this blog post, the world is awaiting election results in Greece, a country whose significance in contemporary world affairs has ballooned in recent months not because of its achievements, but because of its seeming inertia. Unable to form a government, reform its unions, or collect taxes properly, Greece needs a scapegoat in its latest round of voting. Not having the Church to kick around in this mess as he would like, presumably Gibbon would blame the Germans, as leftists tend to do.  Of course the Duke of Gloucester, when he received the second volume of Gibbon’s “Decline” from the author upon its publication in 1781, is supposed to have remarked, “Another damned, thick, square, book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?”

Over on this side of the pond, we look at Greece and at Europe, and shake our heads, telling ourselves, “What a tragedy, if only they would…” The fear of a different sort of microbial infection spreading through the entire European Union and thereby global financial markets should Greece leave the single currency is one which some in the media are embracing wholeheartedly, while others are dismissing as being, at most, highly unlikely. Whatever you may read or hear from the opinionated and the chattering classes, no one really knows what will happen if the Greeks simply decide to say, “No,” to the bailout agreements they have already ratified in their parliament. No one is particularly anxious to find out, either, exactly what would happen, given the interconnectedness of world financial markets.

Yet as much as other government and business leaders around the globe might collectively be holding their breath to see what is going to happen, there needs to be some soul-searching in Western democracies like Greece about where things go from here.  There has been a steady erosion of the idea that smaller communities are better able to look after their own needs, and instead an insistence upon the creation of giant economies of scale, which were supposed to be the Marxist alternative to the bloated, almost Byzantine aspects of British, French, and Russian imperialism that preceded them.  Everyone wants to join the European Union when things are going well, but when things become difficult, as they are now, there is an unwilligness to take personal responsibility for making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions.

Take the newly-elected president of France, for example. M. Hollande recently un-did one of the most unpopular but sensible achievements of his predecessor, M. Sarkozy: he has lowered the retirement age back down to 60, from the 62 M. Sarkozy had raised it to.  Given that the average life expectancy of a Frenchman today is approximately 81 years, that means a large number of people will be drawing pensions for a decade or more longer than previous generations.  And because of declining birth rates and restrictions on immigration, there will be fewer and fewer workers available to pay for these pensions.  Though by then, of course, M. Hollande will be long out of the picture, having achieved the election he wanted without having to pay the piper for the consequences of his decision to encourage irresponsibility on the part of his countrymen.

All of this begs the question: has the West really become such a selfish place that we are being dragged down the drain, and our children along with us, by those who are unable to control their appetites?  If I am short of funds, I economize wherever I can: I brown-bag my lunch, rather than go out to eat, or I turn down invitations to activities I must pay for, until such time as I am back on my feet again.  If I need help, I ask for it, but as a last resort, after I have tried everything else.

Western democracies seem to have lost this concept.  The supposedly evil Germans are treating the Greeks unfairly, but rather trying to encourage them, and others, to behave responsibly and prudently, particularly if they come asking for help.  Pundits have missed out on what the real issue is here: an empire of the unwilling, i.e. one of those unwilling to do what is necessary for the best of their own people.  Whatever the results of the Greek elections today, there needs to be a re-examination of their fundamental approach to government and its interactions with society, and the rights and duties of the members of that society in return.

“The Course of Empire: Destruction” by Thomas Cole (1836)
New York Historical Society, New York

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