An ancient Greek statue, found in waters off Italy, currently sits in the Getty Villa, a museum in Malibu. Who can really lay claim to it? The Getty believes it can, and is currently in a legal battle with the supreme court of Italy to ensure that it stays in Malibu.
The statue has come to be known as the "Getty Bronze" in recent years, but its official name is "Victorious Youth." It is the only surviving sculpture by ancient Greek sculptor Lysippos, said Noah Charney, an art historian and novelist living in Rome who helped found the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.
The statue portrays an athletically sculpted youth balancing his weight on his right leg while crowning himself with what is probably an olive wreath, historically used as a prize for victors in the Olympic Games. The statue is currently housed at the Getty Villa, where the Getty hopes to continue keeping its care, said Lisa Lapin, the vice president for communications at the Getty.
The statue is one of the most famous and iconic objects of antiquity, Charney said. There have been several rounds of legal proceedings, including one in which an Italian court ruled that Italy did not have a claim to it. However, since then further proceedings have shown new evidence that Italy claims to show that it is the rightful owner, Charney said.
Found in waters off the coast of Italy in 1964 by Italian fishermen, the statue was brought to Fano, Italy, where it was hidden in a garden underneath a cabbage patch, Charney said. It was eventually sold in the art market and went through multiple rounds of sale before the Getty purchased it in 1977 from German art dealer Herman Heinz Herzer.
“It went on view at the Getty Museum in 1978 and it’s been on view ever since,” Lapin said.
More than 30 years after the Getty’s purchase, the local Italian municipality claimed the statue was Italian cultural heritage and rightfully belonged to them, and began court proceedings to bring the statue back to Italy, Lapin said. The Italian supreme court's decision is a complete reversal of the 1968 decision which concluded the statue was not Italian property, Lapin said.
At the center of this conflict are the ideas of provenance and provenience, said Patty Gerstenblith, director of the center for art, museum, and cultural heritage law at DePaul University. Provenance in the art world refers to the history of ownership of a piece of art. Provenience, referring to archaeological objects, is the attempt to trace the piece of art back to its place of discovery.
In the case of the “Victorious Youth,” provenience is of utmost importance, Gerstenblith said. If a country can demonstrate provenience for a piece of art, then it has a right to demand that an item be returned. Issues of provenience are very common in the art world, Gerstenblith said.
The Getty and other museums in the past have been willing to return objects that, despite being purchased legally, have unclear lines of provenance, Lapin said.
For example, in 2006 the Getty returned 26 objects to Italy, according to a Getty press release. Twenty-five of them were on a list produced by the Italian Ministry of Culture, and the other is being returned after the Getty’s own research indicated that it was Italian property. The press release indicated that the Getty was hopeful some sort of agreement could be made with Italy to foster a system of long-term loans.
However, the case of the “Victorious Youth” is different. The statue was found off the coast of Italy. However, the Getty has argued that the statue's exact position was likely in international waters, Gerstenblith said, which makes it difficult to demonstrate provenience.
“If in fact it was found in territorial waters, then it would be owned by Italy and its removal without permission from Italy would make it stolen property,” Gerstenblith said. “On the other hand, if it was found in international waters, Italy is not the owner.”
The Getty, therefore, has argued that since the statue was likely found in international waters and the organization purchased it legally from a British art market, it has a legal right to the work, Lapin said. It has also claimed that the most recent Italian court ruling should not be relevant because the purchase was already considered acceptable 50 years ago, Charney said.
The Getty has remained steadfast in its position, Lapin said, and a reversal of this decision later does not change the legality of the purchase.
The Italian lawyers, however, have claimed the arguments presented by the Getty have been strange and at times illogical, Charney said. They have also accused the Getty of playing dirty, according to Charney.
For example, one of the Getty lawyers presented the argument that the “Victorious Youth” was not the same statue as one seen in a photograph presented by the Italian lawyers as evidence. However, Maurizio Fiorilli, one of the lawyers working for Italy's claim, provided evidence of the exact same photograph on the cover of a Getty publication, Charney said, negating that particular argument.
Charney said the Getty has had a particularly checkered past surrounding its acquisition of art. It has more money in its acquisition funds than almost any other museum in the world and therefore is always poised to buy valuable and rare goods that come on the market. But internal memos acquired by the Los Angeles Times indicated that people within the Getty were aware that some of the objects being purchased were of questionable or unclear origins, but decided to purchase them anyhow, Charney said.
Italy has argued that even if the object was found in international waters, it was then smuggled into the country and therefore becomes an Italian customs issue, Charney said.
“The fact that the fishermen brought it to Italy is the critical point,” Charney said. “Had they floated across the ocean to the U.S. directly, and sold it to the Getty then, that would be a different story.”
Following the latest decision, the Getty still asserts its right to ownership of the statue. Lapin said it is looking at its next legal moves, but will certainly continue to uphold its position.
“We do own it. We purchased it legitimately,” Lapin said. “Our philosophy is that museums exist to expose people to their cultural heritage and our cultural heritage, and especially here in the United States, our collective cultural heritage has origins in the entire world.”
The museum's antiquities stretch far beyond the "Victorious Youth" and are at times the focus of controversy. But when shown on display, they reveal more than just aesthetic appearance – viewers become aware of the intense battle for ownership of this artistic value, no matter how cumbersome its preservation may become.