Apr 5, 2007

Monteleone Di Spoleto Wants Its Chariot Back


This exquisite bronze chariot was discovered in 1902 by a farmer clearing some of his land. Today's New York Times has an interesting article by Elisabetta Povoledo on the small Northern-Italian village which wants this chariot returned.

The 2,600 year-old bronze chariot was assembled in 1903, but has recently been reassembled to better show what Etruscan chariots probably looked like at the time. Carol Vogel had a nice article on the new reconstruction last week here. It's also got an excellent slide show of the chariot. The image above shows the chariot before the reconstruction, the picture below is after.

As the Mayor of Monteleone Di Spoleto Nando Durastanti says, "I'm very sorry for the Met because they've done a great job in making the most of the chariot." This is not a claim pursued by the Italian Culture Ministry, rather mayor Durastanti enlisted an Atlanta lawyer named Tito Mazzetta to pursue its claims.

Mazzetta argues that Italian law in 1902 dictated that the chariot was the property of the state, and he uses a decision by the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University which returned an Egyptian Mummy in 2004 even though it had been exported to North America in 1864. Mazzetta wants another exception carved out in the already exception-ridden statute of limitations provisions. I'm not sure what kind of exception he hopes to carve out, but I think he's going to have a difficult time with it. The Demand and Refusal rule which is the law in the State of New York triggers a limitations period when an object that has been missing is demanded from its current possessor. That is the most generous limitations rule that I am aware of in the US. In this case, the Italian State knew about the chariot in 1904. The New York Times has an article on Feb. 16, 1904 in which Italian authorities were critical of the chariot's export. In any case, it seems that an equitable defense such as laches would certainly step in and prevent a repatriation.

This is a difficult battle for Mayor Durastanti, given that over a century has passed with the chariot on display at the Met, and the Italian Culture Ministry does not support the repatriation. His claim is an ethical one. However those claims need public pressure to be effective. Without the support of the Italian Culture Ministry, that is a nearly impossible battle to win in my view.


As Maurizio Firorilli, a lawyer with the Italian Culture Ministry said, "the preconditions that have guided other negotiations don't exist in this case." I think that is right, even though Mazzetta still attempts to stake the moral high ground in the dispute by saying "When lawyers challenged the slaver laws or fought for equal rights for women, people thought they were out of their minds ... Laws should be changed. The crimes of the past should not be condoned." That may be true, but this antiquity seems a very different situation from something like slavery.

The chariot was found by chance by an Italian farmer who didn't know what he had found. He sold the bronze chariot as scrap metal so that he could re-tile his roof. Perhaps the chariot should be returned to Italy, but the World's museums cannot be emptied of all antiquities and works of art which originated in another nation.
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