The Statue of a Victorious Youth, also known as the Athlete of Fano after the town in Le Marche where it was brought ashore in 1964, has been a prized exhibit at the US museum for more than 40 years – hence its other nickname, the Getty Bronze – and has proved a bone of contention for almost as long.
The museum in Los Angeles bought it in 1977 from a European art consortium, the fishermen who found it having quickly sold it on. But Italy argues that it was not theirs to sell, since archaeological heritage is considered property of the state and the Italian people.
On Tuesday Italy's Court of Cassation, the highest court of appeal, agreed. After years of legal wrangling, it upheld the ruling by a lower court in Le Marche that the statue was removed from Italy illegally and must therefore be returned.
“We hope the US authorities will act as soon as possible to facilitate the restitution of the Lysippos to Italy,” Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli told Ansa news agency, saying he was glad that “this judicial process has finally ended and the right to recover an extremely important testimony of our heritage has been recognized”.
“Let's hope the statue can soon return to be admired in our museums.”
The Getty, however, contests Italy's claim to the sculpture, arguing that it was recovered in international waters and might never have touched Italian soil if a Fano fishing trawler hadn't chanced upon it.
“Accidental discovery by Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object,” said Lisa Lapin, a spokesperson for the J Paul Getty Trust, in response to Tuesday's decision. “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 bronze originated in Greece and was probably being shipped to a Roman settlement, but was lost at sea before it ever reached what is now Italy, the Getty says, listing the statue's provenance as, simply, “Europe”.
“We will continue to defend our legal right to the statue. The law and facts in this case do not warrant restitution to the Italian government of a statue that has been on public display in Los Angeles for nearly a half century,” Lapin said.
The Getty pins its claim on an earlier opinion by the Court of Cassation, this one in 1968, that there was no evidence to prove the Victorious Youth belonged to Italy. In that case, as Italian prosecutors attempted to charge the traders in antiquities who helped put the statue on the international market, the court essentially said that it couldn't establish where the artefact had come from or what it was worth.
But the circumstances of its journey from the Adriatic to the Getty are undeniably murky. When the Fano fishermen realized what they had pulled up in their nets, they moved hastily to sell it to a local dealer without informing the Italian authorities, getting the equivalent of around €3,500 for their haul.
The 2,000-year-old artwork, still covered in barnacles from its centuries underwater, was subsequently smuggled in vans and hidden in garages, under a priest's stairs and even, according to some accounts, buried in a cabbage patch to avoid detection.
It's not known how or when it left Italy, but by the early 1970s it had been spotted in Brazil, Britain and finally Germany, where it underwent restoration. From there, some of the world's biggest collectors began to show interest. J Paul Getty looked into buying the bronze but apparently backed off upon learning that Italian police, together with Interpol, were investigating the statue's provenance.
The billionaire died in 1976, and the following year his trust bought the Victorious Youth for nearly $4 million (€3.5 million), making it one of the world's most expensive statues at the time.
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It's not hard to see why. The life-size statue, which shows an athletic young man placing a wreath of olive leaves on his head, is one of only a handful of ancient bronzes to have survived (mostly) intact and demonstrates the Greeks' mastery of complex casting techniques. While it was initially attributed to the master sculptor Lysippos, and is still referred to as “the Lysippos” in Italy, art historians now believe it may have been made by one of his skilled pupils.
While Italy and its specialist police 'Art Squad' have a strong record of recovering stolen artworks, cases of disputed ownership are harder to resolve.
So far, no Italian court's repeated orders that the statue be returned, nor the efforts of successive Italian governments, have persuaded the Getty to surrender its prize. In 2007, under pressure from an Italian culture minister threatening a “cultural embargo” on the museum, the Getty agreed to return 40 other ancient artefacts to Italy – but not the Victorious Youth.
With the museum apparently determined to pursue its case, if the statue ever does return to Italy, it won't be for some time. In the meantime you can admire Italy's other ancient bronzes at the National Roman Museum in Rome's Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, which houses the extraordinary Boxer at Rest, and the National Museum of Magna Graecia in Reggio Calabria, home to the twin Riace Warriors.
One of the Riace bronzes on display. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP