A mountain village in Umbria is caught up in a tug of war with the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the 2,600-year-old Etruscan chariot that is a highlight of the museum’s new Greek and Roman galleries.
A local farmer stumbled upon the bronze chariot, considered one of the finest pieces of Etruscan art in the world, in 1902 as he was clearing land. By the next year it was in the possession of the Met. But the residents of Monteleone, population 680, say the chariot was illegally sold and should never have left the country.
“I’m very sorry for the Met because they’ve done a great job in making the most of the chariot,” said Mayor Nando Durastanti, who saw the chariot, which has been out of sight for years while being restored, this month during a private tour of the new Met galleries, which are to open April 20. “It’s clear they care a lot about it, but it’s ours. It’s part of our identity.”
Emboldened by Italy’s successful campaign to reclaim illegally excavated antiquities from several American museums, including the Met, Mr. Durastanti began his effort three years ago by retaining the services of Tito Mazzetta, a lawyer in Atlanta whose family had emigrated from this village and who agreed to take the case pro bono.
Now Monteleone has a new ally: Mayor Glen D. Gilmore of Hamilton Township, N.J. Mr. Gilmore stopped here this month on a five-day tour of Umbria, the ancestral home of some of his 90,000 constituents. Though he had never heard about the chariot, it did not take long for the villagers to sway him to their cause. Schoolchildren applauded, he said, when he told them he would try to have the chariot returned.
Mr. Gilmore wrote to Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Met, reproaching the museum for dismissing the village’s claim as futile in an exchange of letters with Mr. Mazzetta. He also asked New Jersey’s two United States senators for support.
“It seems only fair that the Met acknowledges that the piece rightfully belongs to Italy and was taken out improperly,” Mr. Gilmore said in a telephone interview, adding that it was “important to fight for the underdog.”
The two-wheeled chariot was one of several objects found in an Etruscan tomb in early 1902, when it was unearthed by the farmer, Isidoro Vannozzi. According to his son Giuseppe — whose account is included in a book about the chariot by Don Angelo Corona, Monteleone’s parish priest and unofficial historian — the chariot was immediately sold as scrap metal for 950 lire, which the family used to buy roof tiles.
The artifact then migrated to Rome, where it was reportedly hidden in the back room of a pharmacy. It then ended up in Paris. According to Mario La Ferla, a journalist who has written a book about the chariot, it was stored in the basement of Crédit Lyonnais there until the financier J. P. Morgan bought it and had it sent to New York.
An article in The New York Times in February 1904 raised questions about the chariot’s “surreptitious exportation to the United States,” citing a heated debate in the Italian Parliament over the sale of the chariot, whose “loss to Italian archeology was incalculable.”
Though last year the Met relinquished 21 objects claimed by Italy, all had been cited as evidence in a court case involving looted antiquities currently under way in Rome. The chariot was “purchased in good faith,” said Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met, and has been “lovingly preserved, widely published and seen by millions of visitors from around the world.”
Mr. Holzer noted that the chariot’s recent restoration was done by an international team of experts that included a specialist from Rome.
Mr. Mazzetta argues that according to Italian law at the time the chariot was dug up, it was the property of the state, and that this combined with the piece’s historical importance should outweigh any statute of limitations. In letters to the Met, he cited the example of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, which returned a mummy of Ramses I to Egypt in 2004. The mummy had been exported to North America in 1864 and bought by the museum in 1999.
“That was the ethical and honorable thing to do,” said Mr. Mazzetta, who added that he planned to ask a federal court to carve out an exception to existing precedent on statutes of limitations for personal property, which vary by state but are around 30 years. A favorable ruling could potentially open the door to thousands of claims, he said.
“When lawyers challenged the slavery laws or fought for equal rights for women, people thought they were out of their minds,” he said. “Laws should be changed. The crimes of the past should not be condoned.”
But Mr. Mazzetta is making his case without the backing of the Italian government. Because the events in question took place so long ago, “the preconditions that have guided other negotiations don’t exist in this case,” said Maurizio Fiorilli, a state lawyer who heads the Ministry of Culture commission that has been negotiating with American museums and collectors for the restitution of antiquities. Mr. Fiorilli noted that the case predated a 1909 law on Italy’s cultural heritage and the 1970 United Nations convention on cultural property that addresses looting.
“This case actually jeopardizes other negotiations,” Mr. Fiorilli said, because if every municipality brought a similar claim, it would make it more difficult to resolve cases with a clearer legal grounding.
For now Monteleone is making do with a replica of the chariot, made in the 1980s and exhibited in a dim vaulted hall of a former Franciscan monastery.
Mayor Durastanti, who said he had the support of 48 townships in Umbria, said he would be satisfied if the Met lent its chariot, or other works of equal value, to the village. “We’re open to any sort of dialogue,” he said, “but we have to sit around a table and find a solution that satisfies everyone.”
He said that the village would not take no for an answer. “They’ll get tired of hearing from us,” he said of the Met. “We’re mountain people. We don’t give up.”