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European court affirms Italy's right to seize ancient bronze statue from LA's Getty Museum

A sculpture titled "Statue of a Victorious Youth, 300-100 B.C." at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, on 27 July 2015
A sculpture titled "Statue of a Victorious Youth, 300-100 B.C." at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, on 27 July 2015 Copyright Credit: AP Photo/Nick Ut
Copyright Credit: AP Photo/Nick Ut
By Theo FarrantAP
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The statue, a life-sized bronze believed to date from 300-100 B.C., was purchased by the Getty in 1977 after being pulled from the sea by Italian fishermen in 1964 and illegally exported.

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A European court has 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 what it considers a vital part of its cultural heritage.

“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 "Victorious Youth," a life-sized bronze sculpture dating back to 300-100 B.C., is a highlight of the Getty collection. Although the artist is unknown, some scholars believe it may have been created by Lysippos, Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor.

Italy's legal battle to retrieve the statue stems from its discovery by Italian fishermen in 1964, after which it was illegally exported and later purchased by the Getty in 1977 for $4 million (€3.7m). 

Why did Italy seek to reclaim the statue and what arguments did the Getty make?

"Victorious Youth", a Greek bronze sculpture on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum
"Victorious Youth", a Greek bronze sculpture on display at the J. Paul Getty MuseumCredit: Flickr Images/SlicesofLight

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 years-long campaign to recover antiquities looted from its territory and sold to museums and private collectors around the globe.

The Getty contested Italy's claim, arguing that its rights to the statue, which depicts a young athlete touching or placing a wreath crown of victory on himself, were protected under European human rights protocols on property protection. 

However, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Italy's efforts to reclaim the statue were not disproportionate and that the Getty had been at best negligent in acquiring it without verifying its provenance properly.

The museum vowed to continue the legal battle to keep it.

Despite Thursday’s ruling, “we believe that Getty’s nearly 50-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.

What does the ruling mean for the Getty Museum and Italy?

Visitors gather around a sculpture titled "Terme Boxer, 3rd–2nd century B.C." at J. Paul Getty Museum, 27 July 2015.
Visitors gather around a sculpture titled "Terme Boxer, 3rd–2nd century B.C." at J. Paul Getty Museum, 27 July 2015.Credit: Nick Ut/AP

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 recognised 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.”

The ruling is significant in the ongoing debate over restitution of cultural artefacts, but the next steps, including potential enforcement of the confiscation order, remain fairly uncertain. 

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.”

Italy may now seek assistance from US authorities to implement the ruling, although the US is not a party to the ECHR.

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