Can Italy force a US museum to restore this ancient Greek sculpture? - Local Italy

The Statue of a Victorious Youth, also known as the Fano Athlete after the city in the Marches where it was taken ashore in 1964, has been a valuable exhibit at the US museum for more than 40 years – hence its nickname, the Getty Bronze – and has proved a bone of contention for almost the time.

The Los Angeles museum bought it in 1977 from a European art consortium, the fishermen who found it quickly sold. But Italy claims that it was not theirs to sell, since the archaeological heritage is considered property of the Italian state and people.


The Victorious Youth is a rare example of antique bronze. Photo: Dave & Margie Hill – CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia

On Tuesday, the Italian Court of Cassation, the highest court of appeal, consented. After years of legal disputes, he confirmed the sentence of a court of first instance in the Marche that the statue was removed from Italy illegally and must therefore be returned.

"We hope that the US authorities will act as soon as possible to facilitate the return of the Lysippos to Italy," said Minister of Culture Alberto Bonisoli to the Ansa news agency, saying that he is pleased that "this judicial process is finally finished and the right to recover one has been recognized as an extremely important testimony of our heritage ".

"We hope that the statue can soon be admired again in our museums".

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The Getty, however, disputes the affirmation of Italy on sculpture, claiming that it was recovered in international waters and that it may never have touched Italian soil if a Fano fishing vessel had not been able to reach it.

"The accidental discovery of Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object," said Lisa Lapin, spokeswoman for the J Paul Getty Trust, in response to Tuesday's decision. "Found out of the territory of any modern state and immersed in the sea for two millennia, the Bronze has only a fleeting and fortuitous connection with Italy."

The bronze originated in Greece and was probably sent to a Roman settlement, but was lost at sea before it reached Italy, says the Getty, listing the provenance of the statue as simply "Europe".

"We will continue to defend our legal right to the statue: the law and the facts in this case do not guarantee the return to the Italian government of a statue that has been publicly exposed in Los Angeles for almost half a century," said Lapin.

The Getty claims its assertion on a previous opinion of the Court of Cassation, this in 1968, that there was no evidence to prove that Victorious Youth belonged to Italy. In that case, while Italian prosecutors tried to accuse antiquities dealers who helped to place the statue on the international market, the court essentially said that it was not able to determine where the artifact came from or what it was worth.

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But the circumstances of his journey from the Adriatic to the Getty are undeniably obscure. When the fishermen from Fano realized what they had brought up in the networks, they were quick to sell them to a local retailer without informing the Italian authorities, obtaining the equivalent of about € 3,500 for their raid.

The 2000-year-old art work, still covered with barnacles from its centuries under water, was subsequently smuggled into vans and hidden in garages, under the stairs of a priest and even, according to some reports, buried in a cabbage to avoid being discovered.

It is not known how and when he left Italy, but at the beginning of the 70s he had been spotted in Brazil, Great Britain and finally in Germany, where he underwent restoration. From there, some of the world's greatest collectors began to show interest. J Paul Getty examined the purchase of bronze, but apparently backed away by finding that the Italian police, along with Interpol, was investigating the origin of the statue.

The billionaire died in 1976 and the following year his confidence bought the victorious Youth for about $ 4 million (€ 3.5 million), making it one of the most expensive statues in the world at the time.

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It is not difficult to understand why. The life-size statue, which shows an athletic young man putting a garland of olive leaves on his head, is one of the few surviving ancient bronzes (mostly) intact and demonstrates the Greek mastery of complex casting techniques. While initially attributed to the master sculptor Lysippus, and is still called "the Lysippus" in Italy, art historians now believe that it may have been done by one of his skilled pupils.

While Italy and its "Police Squad" have a solid record of recovering stolen art works, the disputed property cases are more difficult to solve.

So far, no repeated order by the Italian court to return the statue, nor the efforts of successive Italian governments, have persuaded the Getty to cede its prize. In 2007, under pressure from a minister of Italian culture threatening a "cultural embargo" on the museum, the Getty agreed to return another 40 ancient artifacts in Italy – but not the victorious Youth.

With the museum apparently determined to pursue its cause, if the statue ever returns to Italy, it will not be for a while. In the meantime you can admire other ancient Italian bronzes in the National Roman Museum in the Palazzo Massimo at the Baths of Rome, which hosts the extraordinary Boxer a Riposo, and the National Museum of Magna Graecia in Reggio Calabria, home of the Guerrieri Riace twins.


One of the Riace bronzes on display. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto / AFP

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