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.