In the Italian city of Pesaro last month, a court ruled that the Getty Museum’s prized “Victorious Youth” statue should be returned to Italy. In response to the ruling, the spokesperson for the J. Paul Getty Trust quickly issued the trust’s own stance on the piece, noting that Italy has no cultural claim on the statue. This echoes the judgement made by Italian courts in the 1970s, which had determined that the statue was not Italian. Despite these earlier verdicts, the current case had been tied up in Italian courts for over a decade, dredging up issues of provenance and the legality of the statue’s sale to the Getty. This case demonstrates that the ownership of cultural objects found in international waters remains a murky area of law. And while the Getty has agreed to repatriate objects to Italy before, the “Victorious Youth” controversy has proven to be a unique case.
The “Victorious Youth”— also referred to as the “Getty Bronze” or the “Fano Bronze,” depending on your side in the debate — is well known within the world of art and archaeology. The statue is a vivid depiction of a young athlete from the Hellenistic period and is dated to 300–100 BCE. Its value stems from the fact it was created using the “lost-wax casting” technique and is a rare example of an original, life-sized bronze statue. Although bronze statues were common in Greece during the Classical and Hellenistic periods, many ancient metal sculptures were later melted down or reused in some way. Bronze statues such as the “Riace Bronzes” (460–450 BCE) found off the coast of Italy in 1972, and the “Boxer at Rest” (323–31 BCE) found buried in the ground in Rome in the late 19th century both reside in Italian museums. Precious few specimens survive on this side of the Atlantic, making the statue’s display at the Getty Museum a draw for American researchers and tourists alike.
The “Victorious Youth” was discovered in the Adriatic Sea in June of 1964 by a northern Italian fishing boat, the Ferrucio Ferri working out of Fano, a port that lies between Ravenna and Ancona. The statue was either tossed from an ancient ship in transit or fell into the sea as a result of a shipwreck. Many have posited it was being transported on a Roman ship sending antiquities back from Greece. Originally, the “Victorious Youth” was likely first erected in a city such as Olympia, as confirmation of an athletic victory. The allowance of a bronze statue was a common honor given to athletes who competed and won their event — usually resulting in the athlete commissioning a statue for the town where he competed (e.g. Olympia) and one for his hometown. The cuts at the ankles of the “Victorious Youth” indicate that it was sawed off and removed from its original statue base, likely in a Greek city, and then shipped across the Adriatic Sea toward Italy. It would be two millennia before he would resurface.
Much of the tale of the statue’s discovery has been pieced together through interviews and testaments of eyewitnesses, curators, and dealers — many of whom are now dead. As Christa Roodt, a professor of art law and business at the University of Glasgow recounted in 2015, the lore surrounding the statue’s surfacing holds that it was first found by Italian fisherman while they were trawling international waters in the Adriatic. It was then smuggled into a seaside Italian town, possibly inside a bathtub. It was initially sold for 3.5 million lira (Around $43,500 dollars today) to Giacomo Barbetti, a nearby Italian dealer who bought and sold antiquities. It was quietly transported to Brazil and later to London, before ultimately being conserved in Germany in 1972, at the workshop of Herzer Heinz.
The J. Paul Getty Museum acquired the statue in 1977 from a company called (rather fittingly) Artemis. However, as the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) notes:
In 1974 the Luxembourg-based company Artemis S.A, purchased the statue for $700,000. Founded in 1970, evidence presented by the Italian state at the Tribunal in Pesaro in February 2010 suggests that the firm was created ad hoc to craft false provenance for antiquities trafficking.
At the time of sale, the Italian government had determined the statue was not found in Italian territorial waters and thus was excluded from Italian patrimony. However, the movement of the statue to numerous countries and its laundering through multiple dealers is indeed a common — and worrisome — trait of many antiquities sold on the market today.
In the early 2000s, the Getty was embroiled in controversy over another ancient statue, the so-called “Getty Aphrodite,” or as the Italians called it, the “Dea di Morgantina.” In the late 1970s, the fifth-century BCE Greek, marble statue of a goddess was likely illegally excavated from the Greek site of Morgantina in the interior of Sicily. A false provenance was constructed before its sale to the Getty in 1988, about a decade after its discovery. After the museum and Italian authorities conducted investigations, a bilateral settlement was reached between the Getty and the government of Italy in 2007 to return over 40 objects. However, the “Victorious Youth” was not part of this agreement.
In 2007, an Italian art activist group called Le Cento Città petitioned the Pesaro prosecutor’s office for return of the statue to Fano. As is often the case with the Italian court system, the case has dragged on for many years with numerous judges reversing previous verdicts. The Italians argued that according to the Italian Navigation Code, because the fishing boat was Italian, the objects netted by it — even while in international waters — were by extension owned by Italy. The Getty has emphasized that this is not a clear or even consistent reading of international law. In 2017, Luis Li and Amelia L.B. Sargent, attorneys for the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson which represents the Getty, published an article in the Chapman Law Review arguing that restitution efforts had gone too far in the case of the “Victorious Youth.” Li and Sargent note, “It was not discovered in Italian territory, and it never made it there in antiquity, and so was never incorporated into that country’s historical cultural landscape.”
Underwater cultural heritage can be a problematic category in regard to determining legal ownership. This is particularly true when objects have been found in international waters. Alessandro Chechi, a professor of art-related law at the University of Geneva, weighed in on the “Victorious Youth” case in his 2014 book The Settlement of International Cultural Heritage Disputes. Chechi notes:
Coastal states normally assert the right to prevent unauthorized salvage within their jurisdictional waters, whereas the state of origin of the cargo (if different) may claim the wreck if these are perceived to be part of their cultural heritage.
Active underwater archaeologists have also weighed in. Dan Davis, an underwater archaeologist who works actively in Greece and is a professor of Classics at Luther College, spoke to Hyperallergic from his excavation at Kenchreai.
I think that the seizure order will likely stand once it goes through [the Italian Supreme Court of] Cassation. I guess their basis for seizure is how the statue is handled once it came ashore, then was sold abroad without an export license. In any other country’s court, or in an international court, I sense that it’s more likely that the uncertain location of its find spot would void the case; there are extensive tracts of international waters between Italy and Croatia.
Fishing boats and sponge divers have long been a source for the discovery of classical artifacts, but these archaeological finds are often closer to the coast where national versus international water lines are clearer.
Archaeologists, art historians, and museums alike are paying close attention to what the “Getty Bronze” case may mean for objects dredged from international waters in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Following this new lower court ruling, the Getty Museum must now appeal a third time to the Italian Cassation Court and simply hope that their argument is as victorious as their bronze youth.