Court upholds Italy’s right to seize important bronze from Getty Museum

A European court has upheld Italy’s right to seize a prized Greek statue from the J Paul Getty Museum in California, rejecting the museum’s appeal and ruling Italy was right to try to reclaim an important part of its cultural heritage.

The European Court of Human Rights determined that Italy’s years-long efforts to recover the “Victorious Youth” statue were not disproportionate.

The Getty had appealed against a 2018 Italian high court ruling that had confirmed a confiscation order issued by a lower court.

“Victorious Youth,” a life-sized bronze dating from 300 BC to 100 BC, is one of the highlights of the Getty collection.

An Italian court in Pesaro had ordered it seized and returned in 2010, at the height of Italy’s campaign to recover antiquities looted from its territory and sold to museums and private collectors around the globe.

The Getty has long defended its right to the statue, saying Italy has no claim to it.

Among other things, the Getty had argued that the statue is of Greek origin, was found in international waters and has never been part of Italy’s cultural heritage. It has cited a 1968 Court of Cassation ruling that found no evidence that the statue belonged to Italy.

The bronze, which was pulled from the sea in 1964 by Italian fishermen, was purchased by the Getty in 1977 for four million dollars and has since been on display at the Getty.

Thursday’s ruling by the court in Strasbourg was a chamber judgment. Both sides now have three months to ask that the case be heard by the court’s Grand Chamber for a final ruling.

There was no immediate comment from the Getty, and its lawyers referred comment to the museum.

The Getty had appealed to the ECHR by arguing, among other things, that Italy’s 2010 confiscation order constituted a violation of its right to enjoy its possessions and that it would be deprived of that right if US authorities carried out the seizure.

The ECHR however, ruled in favour of Italy and strongly reaffirmed Italy’s right to pursue the protection of its cultural heritage, especially from unlawful exportation.

The summary added: “The court further held that owing, in particular, to the Getty Trust’s negligence or bad faith in purchasing the statue despite being aware of the claims of the Italian state and their efforts to recover it, the confiscation order had been proportionate to the aim of ensuring the return of an object that was part of Italy’s cultural heritage.”

The statue, nicknamed the “Getty Bronze,” is a signature piece for the museum. Standing about 5ft tall, the statue of the young athlete raising his right hand to an olive wreath crown around his head is one of the few life-sized Greek bronzes to have survived.

Though the artist is unknown, some scholars believe it was made by Lysippos, Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor.

The bronze is believed to have sunk with the ship that was carrying it to Italy after the Romans conquered Greece.

After being found in the nets of Italian fishermen trawling in international waters in 1964, it was allegedly buried in an Italian cabbage patch and hidden in a priest’s bathtub before it was taken out of Italy.

The Italian government says it was brought into Italy and then exported illegally, with the illegal exportation the basis of its confiscation order.


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