The Getty Is Fighting to Keep a Rare Greek Bronze

An Italian magistrate has ordered that the statue, which was discovered in the Adriatic Sea by Italian fishermen, be returned to Italy

A reporter photographs "Statue of a Victorious Youth" on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum. AP Photo/Nick Ut

Among the J. Paul Getty Museum’s most treasured items is a bronze Greek statue of a young man, his weight shifted onto his right leg, his head crowned with an olive wreath—the prize bestowed on victorious athletes in ancient Greece. The aptly named “Statue of a Victorious Youth” was discovered in the Adriatic Sea by Italian fishermen in 1964, and purchased by the Getty in 1977. But this month, as Naomi Rea reports for Artnet News, an Italian magistrate ruled that the museum must return the precious relic to Italy.

The magistrate, Giacomo Gasparini, rejected Getty’s appeal against an order of confiscation that was issued by an Italian court in 2010 and upheld by another Italian court in 2012. Ron Hartwig, a spokesperson for the J. Paul Getty Trust, said in a statement that the organization “disappointed in the ruling, but we will continue to defend our legal right to the statue.”

“Statue of a Victorious Youth” dates to sometime between 300 and 100 BC. According to Sopan Deb of the New York Times, the work is believed to have been inspired by, or even created by Lysippus, the favorite sculptor of Alexander the Great. Very few life-size Greek bronzes survive today, and so the statue “provides much information on the technology of ancient bronze casting,” the Getty Museum explains on its website. Experts think that the Romans, who collected many Greek works of art, tried to take the bronze across the Adriatic, but the ship carrying the statue sank.

Centuries after the bronze plunged to the bottom of the Adriatic, the fishermen who found the statue brought it to the Italian city of Fano. They did not notify customs authorities about the discovery, according to Rea of Artnet, and sold the work to an antiquities dealer. In 1977, the Los Angeles Times editorial board said, the Getty Museum Board of Trustees bought the bronze in the United Kingdom for $3.95 million. (The Los Angeles Times editorial board supports the Getty keeping the statue.) Today, the bronze is housed in the Getty Villa, a campus of the Getty Museum devoted to ancient Greek and Roman art.

In 1989, the Italian government asked the Getty to return “Statue of a Victorious Youth,” and the fight over the bronze has been ongoing ever since. A 1939 Italian law stipulates that Italy can lay claim to any antiquity discovered on its territory, but the Getty has argued that the law does not apply in this case because the statue was discovered in international waters.

“Moreover, the statue is not part of Italy’s extraordinary cultural heritage,” Hartwig, the spokesman for the Getty Trust, said in his statement. “Accidental discovery by Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object. Found outside the territory of any modern state, and immersed in the sea for two millennia, the Bronze has only a fleeting and incidental connection with Italy.”

The Getty has, in the past, repatriated artifacts that were acquired under suspect circumstances. In 2007, the Getty Trust agreed to return more than 40 items to Greece and Italy after questions arose about their provenance, including a statue said to be of the goddess Aphrodite that the museum had purchased for a then-record $18 million. But museum officials maintain that “Statue of a Victorious Youth” was acquired legally, after “extensive review of applicable laws, previous investigations of dealers and a statement by the senior Italian official in charge of export licenses for cultural property who said Italy had no claim on the statue,” according to the L.A. Times' editorial board.

In the wake of the most recent ruling, the Getty says that it plans to file an appeal with the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest judicial authority.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.