For more than 40 years, a statue recovered from a submerged shipwreck in the Adriatic Sea by Italian fishermen has been at the center of a controversy that continues to swirl. On one side are the Italian courts; the other, the powerful Getty Museum. The object in question? A bronze statue that rested on the seafloor for over two thousand years. Italy’s highest court has rejected an appeal by the Getty Museum to hold on to the contested bronze sculpture of a young man, attributed to famed Greek artist Lysippos or one of his students.
The Statue of a Victorious Youth, also known as the Athlete of Fano after the town in Le Marche where it was brought ashore in 1964, has been a prized exhibit at the California museum for more than 40 years, hence its other nickname, the Getty Bronze.
The Malibu museum bought it in 1977 from a European art consortium, but Italy has argued for decades that the antiquity should have never left Italy, since archaeological heritage is considered property of the state and the Italian people.
Recently, Italy’s Court of Cassation, the highest court of appeal, agreed. After years of legal battling, it upheld the ruling by a lower court in Le Marche that the statue was removed from Italy illegally and must therefore be returned.
“We hope the U.S. authorities will act as soon as possible to facilitate the restitution of the Lysippos to Italy,” said Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli, adding that he was glad that “this judicial process has finally ended and the right to recover an extremely important testimony of our heritage has been recognized.”
The Getty, however, contests Italy’s claim to the sculpture, arguing that it was recovered in international waters and might never have touched Italian soil if a Fano fishing trawler had not chanced upon it.
“Accidental discovery by Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object,” said Lisa Lapin, a spokesperson for the J Paul Getty Trust, in response to the decision. “Found outside the territory of any modern state and immersed in the sea for two millennia, the Bronze has only a fleeting and incidental connection with Italy.”
The bronze originated in Greece and was likely being shipped to a Roman settlement, but was lost at sea. The Getty pins its claim on a 1968 opinion by the Court of Cassation that there was no evidence to prove the Victorious Youth belonged to Italy. In that case, Italian prosecutors attempted to bring charges against the group that had helped to place the statue on the international market. The court essentially said that it couldn’t establish where the artifact had come from or what it was worth.
However, following that statement from 50 years ago, the waters have become quite murky regarding the statue. When the Fano fishermen realized what they had pulled up in their nets, they moved quickly to sell the statue to a local dealer and did so without informing any authorities. The legal conflict stems from a 1939 Italian law that says Italy owns any antiquity discovered on its territory and that any ancient work to be shipped out of the country requires a government export license.
The fishermen received roughly $5,600 for the valuable statue. The 2,000-year-old artwork, still covered in barnacles from its centuries underwater, was subsequently smuggled in vans and variously hidden in garages, under a priest’s stairwell and according to some accounts, buried in a cabbage patch to avoid detection. These are not exactly the actions that one would expect if the art dealers were acting in a scrupulous manner.
It is not known how or when the bronze left Italy, but by the early 1970s, it had been spotted in Brazil. It was then transported out of the country. There were reports that the statue had resurfaced in the U.K., but it was in Germany where it underwent restoration, a decade after its discovery in the Adriatic. It was then that several of the world’s largest collectors began to show serious interest in the antiquity. J Paul Getty was one of the interested parties, but stepped away from negotiations when he learned that both Interpol and Italian police were conducting a joint investigation into the statue’s provenance. Although the billionaire died in 1976, the following year his trust bought the Victorious Youth for $3.95 million, making it at the time, one of the world’s most expensive statues.
The life-size statue, which shows an athletic young man placing a wreath of olive leaves on his head, is one of only a handful of ancient bronzes to have survived (mostly) intact and demonstrates a mastery of complex casting techniques. Initially attributed to the master sculptor Lysippos, art historians believe it may have been made by one of his skilled pupils. It is judged to have been cast somewhere between 300 and 100 BC. Regardless of who created the bronze, it has withstood the ages and elements in a remarkable state.
While Italy and its specialist Art Squad have an exceptional record of recovering stolen artworks, this has been a tough case. Thus far, the Italian court’s repeated orders that the statue be returned have been met with resistance and denial by the Getty Museum. In 2007, under pressure from an Italian culture minister threatening a “cultural embargo” on the museum, the Getty agreed to return 40 other ancient artifacts to Italy, but not its most prized possession – the Victorious Youth. In 2010, an Italian court again demanded the statue be seized and brought up the question of whether the Getty Trust had done its proper due diligence before acquiring the statue.
The Getty Trust appealed to the Court of Cassation, who kicked it back to the regional court, which then upheld the decision in 2012. Several more hearings and appeals followed and culminated with the latest decision from the local court in Pesaro, near where the fishermen first returned with the statue in their boat. It judged that the Getty must return the bronze.
As 2019 began, the Supreme Cassation Court in Rome stated that the Getty Museum showed “unjustifiable carelessness” in buying the ancient statue. In doing so, Italy’s top court rejected an appeal by the Getty against the Pesaro judge’s confiscation order. The court chided the museum for relying on opinions from consultants appointed by the seller, despite the perplexity shown by the most authoritative party in the talks, the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The Getty said in a statement that “we will continue to defend our right to the Lysippos.”
In some cases in the past, foreign governments have asked for the help of the United States Justice Department in recovering an artwork that were the subject of a repatriation claim. The department declined to comment.
With the Getty Museum determined to retain the statue, if it ever does return it to Italy, it is unlikely to be for some time. In the meantime you can admire Italy’s other ancient bronzes at the National Roman Museum in Rome’s Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, which houses the extraordinary Boxer at Rest and the National Museum of Magna Graecia in Reggio Calabria, home to the twin Riace Warriors.