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Italy and the Getty Must Find Common Ground

Los Angeles Times Op-Ed

By Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum

November 28, 2006

When I became director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in December last year, I made it a priority to resolve claims by the Greek and Italian governments for objects in our antiquities collection.  I visited Rome to begin negotiations within my first month of full-time work, and Athens a little while later.  We have made great progress in our negotiations with the Greek Ministry of Culture: we have returned two works of art and we now are in the final stages of resolving the status of the two remaining objects.

The Getty entered its discussions with Italy in the same spirit.  I was greatly heartened when Minister Rutelli confirmed my feeling that an agreement had to be reached, but that it would require compromise on both sides.   Our initial discussions with Ministry of Culture officials, while often marked by competing viewpoints, did lead us to an agreement in principle in June of this year.

To my delight, a term sheet was signed by both parties on October 5 that set out both what we had already come to agree upon, and processes for working towards resolution of the remaining issues.  It was agreed, for example, that the Getty would return 26 objects and that Italy would drop claims on six objects as well as provide significant loans to the Getty. We asked Italy to consider a creative solution for the Cult Statue of a Goddess (the so-called “Aphrodite”) involving immediate joint ownership during a period of collaborative research, and then, if necessary, a willingness to submit to neutral, binding arbitration to resolve its ultimate fate.  With respect to the Statue of a Victorious Youth (the so-called “Getty Bronze”), the Getty agreed to provide a formal, written position regarding our claim to ownership. 

At the conclusion of that meeting, the Getty team returned to Los Angeles believing that this deal (which we were assured was indeed fully authorized) had finally provided a fair path towards resolving past differences and creating a framework for future collaboration between the Getty and Italy.

But then everything changed on the Italian side, for reasons that no Italian official has been able, or willing, to explain.  Soon, we began to hear that the Ministry had disavowed this latest agreement and, in correspondence to the Getty, new demands were put forward as if nothing had been agreed and signed in October. We were also disappointed to be informed that joint ownership of the Cult Statue, even for a period of four years, would not be possible. What was even more discouraging, however, was that before even waiting to receive our document on the Statue of a Victorious Youth, Italy announced unilaterally that no final agreement would be possible at all without the transfer of this one object.

Believing that face to face discussions were the only way to bring our negotiations back on track, I led a team back to Rome last week.  We came to that meeting, presided over by the Minister at the beginning and end, prepared to make significant compromises, including the immediate transfer of title to the Cult Statue.  Eventually, we were told formally (for the first time, it should be stated, in almost ten months of negotiations) that the political climate in Italy precluded any agreement without the transfer of the Statue of a Victorious Youth.  With no room for further discussion, the meeting came to an end. 

No director of any museum can “deaccession” or transfer ownership of publicly held works of art without a legal basis.  As director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, I cannot compromise on the Statue of a Victorious Youth.  I understand that this is an emotional and political issue in Italy.  But such claims cannot override the substantial legal evidence supporting the Getty’s ownership of the statue, including the fact that this Greek statue was found in international waters in 1964, and was obtained by the Getty Museum in 1977 only after Italian courts had declared that there was no evidence that the statue belonged to Italy.  Indeed, in all Italian legal proceedings regarding the Bronze, the Ministry has never before asserted a claim for this object.

I am deeply saddened that our talks have broken down. Minister Rutelli has told us of his high regard for the Getty, and we hold him in equally high esteem. I remain open to resuming discussions with the Ministry as long as there remains willingness to compromise on both sides.  Of course, I would be especially pleased to show Minister Rutelli the Getty Villa, the only museum in the United States dedicated to Roman, Etruscan and Greek art and culture.  I am eager for him to see personally the impact the magnificent works of art displayed there have on the public and scholars, who visit the Getty from around the world. It is for these visitors, who clearly value the ability of art to illuminate our shared histories, that we must find a mutually satisfactory and comprehensive solution.

Whether or not that happens in the immediate future, I believe it is appropriate for the Getty to return to Italy the 26 objects included in the agreement we signed jointly on October 5.  We also plan to provide the Ministry with information related to all of the objects claimed so there can be no doubt about the seriousness of our efforts to resolve Italy’s claims based on solid research of all available evidence. Regrettably for our visitors, however, this may be done without any guarantee of return loans from Italy. 

Nonetheless, given the longstanding, positive and productive relationship between the Getty and Italy, I do not believe that some fair and reasonable resolution cannot be achieved. Like the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I believe the Getty would have already reached a final agreement with Italy if the unique bronze athlete had not been part of the mix.

We must find a way to resolve our current impasse or both sides risk jeopardizing the extraordinary exchange of ideas and knowledge that emerges from international collaboration in the study and preservation of Italy’s cultural heritage.  We have already introduced a new acquisition policy as our contribution to our mutual goal of eliminating the desecration of archaeological sites and the illicit trade in antiquities.  We acknowledge the Getty must do its part to resolve this matter.  But Italy must resist the temptation to allow political concerns to eclipse the goal of art museums all around the world to give the public access to our shared art and cultural heritage.

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