Nov 20, 2007

The Getty Bronze and "Culture Property Wars"


The "Arts, Briefly" section in today's New York Times has a couple of interesting points today. First, Marion True went on trial in Greece for conspiring to acquire a gold funerary wreath, alleged to have been removed from Greece. Also, a judge in Pesaro, Italy dismissed a local prosecutor's claim to the "Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth" found by fisherman in the Adriatic and currently on display at the Getty. When a repatriation agreement was reached in August for 40 other objects, Italian authorities said they would consider their case after the case in Pesaro was resolved.

Along those lines Lee Rosenbaum has an interesting series of posts on how to create a "ceasefire in the cultural property wars". She makes a number of excellent suggestions, including a need for full disclosure of acquisition policies, and to create a "consistent handling" of repatriation proposals. I agree with both those suggestions.

I have to raise some issues with her discussion of a consensus for future acquisitions. She gives the three dates normally given as cutoffs for new acquisitions:

  1. 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention;
  2. 1983, the date the US implemented the Convention with the CPIA; or
  3. A 10-year "rolling rule" advocated by the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Those are all plausible dates, but I think Rosenbaum misses the point in discussing the Getty's new acquisition policy, and how it relates to the Getty Bronze. First, here's the Getty's revised acquisition policy:

For the acquisition of any ancient work of art or archaeological material, the revised policy requires:

* Documentation or substantial evidence that an item was in the United States by November 17, 1970 and that there is no reason to suspect it was illegally exported from its country of origin OR

* Documentation or substantial evidence that the item was out of its country of origin before November 17, 1970 and that it has been or will be legally imported into the United States, OR

* Documentation or substantial evidence that the item was legally exported from its country of origin after November 17, 1970 and that it has been or will be legally imported into the United States.

Rosenbaum then argues, "good faith counts. And it seems to me that this is the best argument for returning the Getty Bronze: There was plenty of 'reason to suspect it was illegally exported from its country of origin,' and plenty of people DID suspect it, at the time of the acquisition."

I think Rosenbaum misses the point of the new acquisition policy, because if the Getty were deciding whether to acquire the Bronze today, based on its new acquisition policy it could certainly do so. To be fair, you have to think like a lawyer. The "or" is critical. The Getty could hypothetically acquire the statue if any one of the three clauses are satisfied; it doesn't have to satisfy all three. The statue was found in international waters in 1964. Even assuming Italy was its "country of origin" the statue had left Italy by 1970, and it certainly was legally imported into the United States; as at that time the US did not enforce Italy's export restrictions. It's also worth remembering that absent a treaty agreement the US does not enforce the export restrictions of another nations. The reasons for that policy are complicated, and often don't seem to have a solid policy foundation, but that's the general rule followed in both the US and the UK.

These are difficult issues to be sure, but as I've argued I don't think Italy has a strong ethical or legal claim to the statue. Greece perhaps has an ethical claim, but not Italy. The most likely reason for the statue ending up in the Adriatic is it was taken from Greece, probably by Romans.


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