“What’s in a name?” In a brief phrase, William Shakespeare encapsulated the struggle and tragedy of his classic Italian lyrical drama pitting Capulet against Montague.
Today, another unfortunate Italian fight over heart and mind pits the people of Italy against the wealthiest museum in the world, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It is the tale of a priceless Italian Bronze statue, illicit art trafficking, greed, power and a courtroom drama over disputed ownership of this antiquity that will end in just weeks – though the real-world conflict over possession could unfortunately go on for years.
The story begins in Italy, near the Adriatic Sea:
In the Fourth Century B.C., the personal sculptor to Alexander the Great crafted an extraordinary work of art, “The Athlete of Fano.” It is known in Italy simply as the Lisippo, after its creator. In the United States, it is called “Victorious Youth.” At the statue’s most recent home, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, it is proudly referred to as “The Getty Bronze.”
So what’s in a name?
“The Getty Bronze” – the museum’s own name for the 2,300-year-old statue that may best symbolize the conflict. The world’s wealthiest museum, which purchased the statue 37 years ago under questionable circumstances, contends the statue is theirs.
Let’s examine the facts: In 1964, Italian fishermen within the coastal waters of Marche Region dredged up the five-foot statue. It was buried in a cornfield in Marche Region. An Italian art dealer paid the fishermen only $1,600 to claim possession. Here is where our story becomes a mystery – until the statue is put on display at the Getty in 1974 – a priceless artwork purchased for $3.9 million. The statue quickly becomes a star attraction that is used to build the international reputation of the museum along with the Italian sculpture Aphrodite and many other Italian antiquities.
After decades of legal wrangling, the famed seven-foot marble and limestone Aphrodite, was finally returned by the Getty last month to its homeland in Italy under escort of Italian police. The museum also agreed to return another 39 high-profile works of art illegally excavated from Italian soil.
An Italian court in Pesaro will ultimately decide the ownership of “Victorious Youth” in the next few weeks, following an unsuccessful legal appeal by the Museum. However, the statue’s fate may take longer to decide. These types of international lawsuits and compliance with their directives could take time. We understand that because the bronze is such a popular draw for the Getty, its officials may wish to see the clock continue to move slowly – even while Italy is eager for quick resolution after decades of arguing.
Here is why the name and the ownership are so important to the people of Marche Region in Italy: This statue is not the “Getty Bronze.” It is Lissipo’s “Victorious Youth.” It belongs to our people. This antiquity is profoundly significant to Italy and the Marche Region. It is a part of the history and legacy of the Adriatic community. Sadly, it was stolen, illegally trafficked and questionably sold – with equally questionable ownership credentials to the Getty, which arguably knew better.
We expect the Getty – as one of the preeminent cultural institutions in the world – to act ethically and reasonably and return “Victorious Youth” to its homeland.
Having established our legal case, now let’s write an end to the drama that could resolve the dispute and benefit Italy, this great museum and art lovers across the world. Yes, we want the statue back in Marche Region. Most importantly, we want important works on exhibit for all people who are passionate about fine art.
With this in mind, I and a delegation from Marche Region came to the Getty last week to meet with museum officials Carol White and Ron Hartwig to offer a cultural exchange – a sharing of antiquities and Renaissance-era artworks that are so prevalent in Marche. We invited the director of the Getty to visit us. We spoke to the press about the Marche Region’s desire to diplomatically share custody of “Victorious Youth” and to make it a showpiece for people on both continents who wish to enjoy this extraordinary sculpture.
We did not come to declare war on the Getty. We came to offer a reasonable choice, to engage in an equitable discussion. Instead, the Getty insists we continue to wait on a court decision rather than enter into a diplomatic resolution that could speed the end of this story.
Still, we are confident that the Getty Museum will decide to respect its founder’s love of art; and that it will take this opportunity to show the artists and art patrons across the planet that its unique value as a world-class cultural institution is built on a foundation of ethics.
In the end, there is no need for this tale of a rare antiquity to become a tragedy. We believe an ethical settlement that benefits the art world, castigates illicit art-trafficking and acknowledges the important origins of this rare antiquity should be the final chapter. Whether it is called “The Getty Bronze” or “The Athlete of Fano” or “The Victorious Youth” – what’s in a name is the passion and respect for the artistic and cultural heritage of the great works of art you display.
Gian Mario Spacca has been President of Italy’s Marche Region since 2005. He is a member of the European Commission for Economic and Social Policy (ECOS) and a Vice President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), of the European Parliament.