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Ownership Dispute over Greek Bronze Statute

By Sydney Guenther
The Digest, Associate Editor

In 1977 the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, bought an ancient Greek bronze statute, the Victorious Athlete, from an Italian fisherman. The bronze statute was retrieved from the Adriatic Sea in 1964.

Italy and the Getty Museum have been in numerous disputes over ancient artifacts throughout the past couple of years. After an agreement in 2007, the Getty Museum returned 26 out of 46 contested objects to Italy. However the Getty Museum refused to turn over the ancient Greek bronze statute, stating that it belonged to the Museum and because it was one of the Museums most prized possessions. The Getty Museum sent a twenty page file to the Italian Culture Ministry, which outlined the Museum’s ownership argument. The Italian state attorney’s office rejected the Museum’s conclusions and countered with a four page rebuttal.

Italy’s claim is that the statute became Italian property the moment it was retrieved out of the Adriatic Sea, in 1964, and that it was illegally smuggled out of the country. Furthermore, Italy states that when the Getty Museum purchased the statute, for nearly four million dollars, they should have known it was an illegal sale. The Getty Museum insists that their purchase of the statute was legal, claiming that they never knowingly bought any illegally recovered artifacts.

The dispute over the bronze statute has been going on for some years now. In February of 2010, this case was decided.

The case was tried in Italy, and it was heard before Judge Lorena Mussoni. Judge Mussoni cited the Getty Museum with “grave negligence” in purchasing the statute. Judge Mussoni overturned a 2008 ruling of the case by a different Italian Judge, by ruling against the Getty Museum. The reasoning behind Judge Mussoni’s decision was based on the fact that the statute was Italian property once it was removed from the Adriatic Sea, and selling the statute violated Italian law. It was ordered that the statute be retuned immediately to Italy.

Former Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli exclaimed that the verdict was of “historic importance, ending the era of looting out archaeological heritage.”

The next step for the Italian Justice Ministry is to make a formal request to the American authorities to execute the court order. However, the Getty Museum plans on “vigorously defend[ing] its ownership of the statute” stating they will be appealing to Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation in Rome, on the claim that the statute was found in international waters.

For more information, please see:

Los Angeles Times, "Italian Judge Orders Statute be Seized from Getty," 12 Feb. 2010.

The Florentine, "Battle Over Antiquities," 25 Feb. 2010.

The New York Times, "Getty Bronze Must Be Returned to Italy, Judge Rules," 11 Feb. 2010.

The New York Times, "Italy Digs in its Heels in Artifacts Dispute with the Getty," 21 Dec. 2006.