Thought-Pourri: Mergers and Acquisitions Edition

Very exciting times at the Fortress of Solitude of late, since I’ve recently acquired several new works for my art hoard and one of them I believe to be…if not by an actual Old Master whom we can name, at least a piece dating from the mid- to late-17th century. The interesting part is going to be having it cleaned, as it is absolutely filthy from years of dirt, grease, smoke, and who knows what else. However this is the only teaser you’re getting so far, gentle reader, as I’ll probably write up the experience of the reveal for The Federalist if all goes well. Now to find an art restorer who doesn’t charge me museum-level cleaning costs…

In the meantime, on to the art news we go.

Seeing Santander

The massive HQ of Banco Santander, located in the Spanish city which gave it its name, will soon become a major new private museum. The bank, which is the largest in Spain and has become far more visible internationally (including in this country) in recent years due to a number of significant mergers and acquisitions, was founded in 1851; its leadership has called the rather grandiose Pereda Building along the city’s waterfront promenade home for about a century. The financial giant is now moving into a new building, where it will consolidate many of its operations, and turn the older HQ and a neighboring building into a museum and cultural center.

British architect David Chipperfield recently won the competition for the museum portion of the project, although no estimated completion date has yet been announced. Over time, Banco Santander has accumulated a massive art collection of works dating from the 16th century to the present. Holdings include pictures by El Greco, Picasso, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Van Gogh, among many others, as well as sculpture, furniture, porcelain, tapestries, and other decorative arts. Most of these are currently held at an exhibition location maintained by the bank in suburban Madrid, which to be honest I had never heard of until this press announcement.

Once completed, the museum will certainly become a major stop on any cultural tour of Northern Spain. While somewhat uneven, as institutional rather than personal collections tend to be, there are some real gems here, particularly of turn-of-the-century art being produced in Barcelona and Madrid around the same time. One examples is this 1899 portrait of an unknown gentleman by the great Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923). Current scholarship suggests that this is the lawyer, art historian, and one-time mayor of Madrid Manuel Escrivá de Romaní, Marques of Alginet and Count of Casal, since Sorolla inscribed the painting, “A mi amigo Manolo”, and “Manolo” is a nickname for Manuel.

Sorolla

Found Fountain

More than 70 years after it ended, the Nazi looting of Europe for art treasures continues to yield bizarre stories of loss and recovery for art historians, governments, and individuals to wrangle over. This lengthy, fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine chronicles the creation, fame, disappearance, and rediscovery of a major work of German Art Nouveau sculpture, “Drei tanzende Mädchen” (“Three Dancing Maidens”), created by Walter Schott (1861-1938). It won the Gold Medal at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1910, and copies were acquired by several cities and institutions; in fact, one is located in Central Park in Manhattan. The fate of the original, as you will see, is a bit murky, and the article does not resolve the question of its fate.

fountain

Getty Grief

The deep pockets of the Getty Museum and its mandate to study, inter alia, classical Greek and Roman art continue to cause problems for the Los Angeles institution. Recently, the Getty acquired the magnificent 2nd century AD bust of an unknown Roman, possibly one of the Antonine emperors, such as Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius. Meanwhile, an Italian judge has recently issued a decision against the Getty involving a long-standing dispute over the museum’s famous Ancient Greek bronze “Victorious Youth”, which may have been created by Lysippus, personal sculptor to Alexander the Great.

The Getty has always claimed that because the piece was recovered from international waters, the fishermen had every legal right to sell it. However the Italian government has successfully persuaded the courts up to now that, because the piece was brought to shore in Italy, and was first sold there by its finders without an export license and without notice to the Italian government of their treasure find, the Getty must return the sculpture. It seems that Italy is arguing that the Getty has possession but no title, which any of my readers who are fellow lawyers will recognize is a classic problem in tort law with respect to tangible property ownership. Appeals are expected to continue for some time, as this will be a fight to the death, given the exceptional importance of this sculpture to art history.

Victorious Youth (Greek, 300-100 BC) - detail

 

 

 

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