Dec 21, 2006

"The game is over..."


Those are the comments of Italian Culture minister Francesco Rutelli in an interview with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli yesterday. You can hear the story here. Yesterday, Rutelli conducted a press conference threatening serious consequences for the Getty if they do not return 26 disputed antiquities.

The press conference compared images from the trial of convicted dealer Giacomo Medici with images from the Getty's own website. Rutelli said, "Either there's an agreement, with the return of all of the works requested by Italy, or the negotiations will be broken off...We have documented the fact that these works were stolen, clandestinely exported and then acquired by the Getty...We have negotiated with great patience for months. The time has now come. The works that were stolen from Italy must be returned."

Rutelli certainly seems to be ratcheting up the rhetoric to attempt to force the Getty's hand. It's not clear that all the 26 objects Rutelli wants repatriated were actually stolen. Take this 4th century B.C. bronze statue, which is Greek by the way, which was found in international waters in 1966, and acquired by the Getty in 1977. The work is undoubtedly Greek, thus if any source nation should be claiming it, it should be Greece. However, the bronze was allegedly brought onto Italian soil, and then clandestinely taken across the border. Under Italian law, the export of these kinds of antiquities is prohibited. However, the mere fact that an object was illegally exported does not necessarily have any implications under US law. As Justice Story expressed in the admiralty prize case The Apollon, "The laws of no nation can justly extend beyond its own territories, except so far as regards its own citizens." Justice Story was referring mainly to public laws of other nations. I'm not an expert on Italian law, but neither English nor American courts will enforce another nations's export restrictions. Thus, though Rutelli may argue that the Bronze should be returned, if the Italians choose to seek a remedy in the American courts, the Italians will be quite unlikely to prevail. The best that Rutelli can hope for, is an increase in public pressure which might somehow force the Getty into returning the bronze.

In terms of the other works, we should not be too quick to connect the fact that these objects may have been stolen or looted with any guilty knowledge on the part of the Getty. There may be suspicious circumstances, and the trial of Marion True, the former curator certainly adds to the possibility, but much of the litigation involving illicit cultural property involves two relative innocents. The original owner or possessor of the object, and the current possessor. Often, there are a number of intervening dealers and middlemen through which an object becomes "laundered" in a way, so that in the end it comes out with a relatively clean title. The ultimate solution, I think, is a serious reform of the way the market conducts itself. I do not know the underlying motivations of True or any of the other curators at the Getty, but the Getty is the wealthiest art institution on the planet. If I'm not mistaken, the trust dictates that it has to spend a certain portion of its millions every year. In my view, the market is so flawed, no matter how good your intentions, if you buy objects you are bound to be acquiring some pieces that were gained illicitly. Perhaps that's a reason not to purchase any items at all until the market sorts itself out. However, that's a very difficult step to take when you are acquiring world-class objects from some of the greatest artists of the classical world.
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