European court upholds Italy’s claim to Greek bronze in US museum

Rome: Italy is allowed to confiscate an ancient Greek bronze fished from the Adriatic in the 1960s and now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Europe’s top rights court ruled Thursday.

Representing a nude athlete and known in the United States as “Victorious Youth”, the statue vanished following its 1964 discovery until its 1977 purchase by the museum. The Getty has since refused to return it to Italy.

The museum had appealed to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after Italy’s top tribunal in 2019 upheld an Italian confiscation order for the bronze.

Following Thursday’s ruling, Getty can still in the next three months ask for the case to be reconsidered, but the court does not have to grant that request.

Rome has been trying to recover the 6th-Century BC statue since it was auctioned for $3.9 million in Germany. It also tried to prevent its transfer to the United States via Britain.

“We’ve been working flat out” to get it back, Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said. Rome no longer lent works to museums with which it has disputes, he added.

But the sculpture, attributed to Greek artist Lysippos, has remained on display at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles’ high-end Pacific Palisades district.

The museum argued that attempts to confiscate it went against the fundamental right to property protected in the Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights.

In their ruling, Italian judges had said the statue belonged to the country’s cultural heritage because of its recovery by an Italian-flagged ship.

They also pointed out the “continuum between Greek civilisation… and the subsequent Roman cultural experience”.

The ECHR, rejecting Getty’s appeal, agreed that Rome “had reasonably demonstrated that the statue had been part of Italy’s cultural heritage and had also legally belonged to the state.

“The court stressed that an acquirer of property had to carefully investigate its origin in order to avoid possible confiscation claims,” it added.

“The Getty Trust, by purchasing the statue in the absence of any proof of its legitimate provenance and with full knowledge of the Italian authorities’ claims over it, had disregarded the requirements of the law, at the very least negligently, or perhaps in bad faith,” the court added.

There was therefore “a clear legal basis… for the confiscation order regarding the statue”.

Judges also pointed to international agreements protecting against illicit export of cultural goods, such as a 1970 convention by UN cultural body UNESCO.

Italy has already clashed with the Getty Museum, striking a deal with it in 2007 for the return of 42 ancient objects Rome said had been stolen and illegally exported.

Founded by oil billionaire John Paul Getty, the museum is backed by the world’s wealthiest art foundation, whose assets were estimated at several billion dollars in 2009.