European court upholds Italy's right to seize prized Greek bronze from Getty Museum, rejects appeal

FILE - Reporter Sookee Chung takes a photo of a sculpture titled "Statue of a Victorious Youth, 300-100 B.C." at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, on July 27, 2015. A European court upheld Italy’s right to seize a prized Greek statue from the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, rejecting the museum’s appeal on Thursday and ruling Italy was right to try to reclaim an important part of its cultural heritage. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)

By NICOLE WINFIELD Associated Press

ROME (AP) — A European court on Thursday upheld Italy’s right to seize a prized Greek statue from the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, ruling that Italy was justified in trying to reclaim an important part of its cultural heritage and rejecting the museum’s appeal.

The European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR, determined that Italy’s decades-long efforts to recover the “Victorious Youth” statue from the Malibu-based Getty were not disproportionate.

“Victorious Youth,” a life-sized bronze dating from 300 B.C. to 100 B.C., is one of the highlights of the Getty collection. Though the artist is unknown, some scholars believe it was made by Lysippos, Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor.

The bronze, which was pulled from the sea in 1964 by Italian fishermen and then exported out of Italy illegally, was purchased by the Getty in 1977 for $4 million and has been on display there ever since.

The Getty had appealed to the European court after Italy’s high Court of Cassation in 2018 upheld a lower court’s confiscation order. The Italian legal rulings were part of the country’s yearslong campaign to recover antiquities looted from its territory and sold to museums and private collectors around the globe.

The Getty had argued that its rights to the statue, under a European human rights protocol on protection of property, had been violated by Italy’s campaign to get it back.

The European court ruled Thursday that no such violation had occurred. And it went even further, affirming in an online, English judgement what Italy’s Cassation had determined: that the statue was part of Italy’s cultural heritage, that international law strongly supported Italy’s efforts to recover it, and that the Getty had been at best negligent when it bought it without properly ascertaining its provenance.

“This is not just a victory for the Italian government. It’s a victory for culture,” said Maurizio Fiorilli, who as an Italian government attorney had spearheaded Italy’s efforts to recover its looted antiquities and, in particular, the Getty bronze.

The Getty has long defended its right to the statue, saying Italy had no legal claim to it. The museum vowed Thursday to continue the legal battle to keep it.

Despite Thursday’s ruling, “we believe that Getty’s nearly fifty-year public possession of an artwork that was neither created by an Italian artist nor found within the Italian territory is appropriate, ethical and consistent with American and international law,” the museum said in a statement.

Among other things, the Getty has argued that the statue is of Greek origin, was found in international waters and was never part of Italy’s cultural heritage. It has cited a 1968 Court of Cassation ruling that found no evidence that the statue belonged to Italy.

Italy argued, and the Cassation court later found, that the statue was indeed part of its own cultural heritage, that it was brought to shore by Italians aboard an Italian-flagged ship and was exported illegally, without any customs declarations or payments.

Thursday’s decision by the Strasbourg, France-based ECHR was a chamber judgment. Both sides now have three months to ask that the case be heard by the court’s Grand Chamber for a final decision and Getty said it was considering such recourse.

Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano praised Thursday’s decision as an “unequivocal ruling” that recognized Italy’s ownership of the statue, and said his government would renew contact with U.S. authorities “for assistance in the implementation of the confiscation order.”

ECHR rulings are binding on the states that are party to the court. The U.S. is not a party but it has a tradition of judicial cooperation with Italy. Italy had asked the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to enforce the confiscation order in 2019. The ECHR ruling noted that the “procedure is still pending.”

Experts in cultural patrimony law said the ruling was significant, including for the broader restitution debate roiling U.S. and European museums, but that the next steps remain uncertain. Italy could ask a U.S. court directly to recognize and enforce the Cassation ruling, or it could ask the U.S. attorney to initiate the proceedings.

“If the U.S. court were to enforce the judgment, then it’s going to open a huge can worms for American museums,” said Patty Gerstenblith, an expert in cultural heritage law at DePaul University.

However, she noted that if Italy had tried to sue the Getty directly in a U.S. court, it probably wouldn’t have succeeded. Too much time has passed and there has still been no definitive finding on whether the statue was found in Italian territorial waters or international waters, the key test under U.S. law for determining ownership.

Derek Fincham, a researcher in cultural heritage at South Texas College of Law, said the ruling was “a big win for Italy” and other nations of origin, particularly because the court asserted that states have “a wide margin of appreciation where cultural heritage issues are concerned.”

“It’s a pretty good own-goal for the Getty because they brought the claim, and now there’s all of this detail that’s in English” from the Italian Cassation ruling and Italy’s 50-year effort to get the statue back, he said.

Italy has recently ceased cooperation with foreign museums that don’t recognize Italian confiscation orders, banning loans to the Minneapolis Institute of Art following a dispute over an ancient marble statue believed to have been looted from Italy almost a half-century ago.

The “Victorious Youth,” nicknamed the “Getty Bronze,” is a signature piece for the Getty. Standing about 5 feet (1.52 meters) tall, the representation of a young athlete raising his right hand to an olive wreath crown around his head is one of the few life-sized Greek bronzes to have survived.

The bronze is believed to have sunk with the ship that was carrying it to Italy after the Romans conquered Greece. After being found in the nets of Italian fishermen trawling in international waters in 1964, it was allegedly buried in an Italian cabbage patch and hidden in a priest’s bathtub before it was taken out of the country.

The statue resurfaced in Germany in the early 1970s in the possession of a German art dealer, identified in court documents as Mr. H.H., who was holding it on behalf of a Liechtenstein-based company.

In 1972, advisers to J. Paul Getty, the American oil magnate and art collector, entered into negotiations with Mr. H.H. to purchase it. The ECHR ruling reproduced court documentation showing Getty himself wanted to be assured that he could obtain legal title to the statue.

But the ECHR ruling said Getty’s advisers didn’t go far enough in ascertaining whether the sellers had acquired it and exported it legally from Italy. It said they relied on legal opinions from the sellers’ lawyers who “had a clear interest in presenting the provenance as legitimate.”

Citing the lower court rulings, the ECHR judges determined the Getty Trust had “very weighty reason to doubt the statue’s legitimate provenance.” When they went ahead and purchased it anyway after Getty died, they acted “at the very least, negligent, if not in bad faith.”

It said the Getty couldn’t expect to be compensated for the statue, since it “accepted, at least implicitly, the risk that the statue might be confiscated.”

Italy has successfully won back thousands of artifacts from museums, collections and private owners around the world that it says were looted or stolen from the country illegally. It recently opened a museum to house them until they can be returned to the regions from where they were looted.