Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, has a problem that won't go away: a dispute with the Italian government over ancient artworks in the museum's collection. Once-promising negotiations have completely broken down.
In the 18 months that Brand has led the museum, he's strengthened its acquisition policy, hired several key staff members and helped organize new shows. He also helped repair the museum's reputation and that of the parent Getty Trust, the world's richest art institution with a $5.6 billion endowment.
The trust last year settled an investigation by the California attorney general into the Getty's governance. Brand struck an agreement with the Greek government over disputed antiquities, returning four objects this year, and was making progress in talks with Italy's Ministry of Culture over 52 disputed works.
``Everything was going along fine -- which isn't to say it was easy, but we knew what we agreed on and what we had yet to reach agreement on,'' Brand recalled in an interview. ``And then last November they placed a new condition on the table, that without the Getty Bronze there would be no agreement at all.''
The Getty Bronze, or ``Statue of a Victorious Youth,'' is a life-size Greek sculpture of a muscular nude athlete made between 300 B.C. and 100 B.C. that the museum acquired in 1977 for $3.95 million. It's a highlight of the collection, displayed in a special room of its own at the Getty Villa in Malibu.
The museum's position is that the statue was made in Greece, looted by the Romans about 2,000 years ago and lost at sea. It was then discovered in 1964, in international waters of the Aegean Sea, by Italian fishermen who brought it ashore and quickly sold the heavily encrusted work to a local art dealer. After it was sold a second time the next year, the sculpture was shipped out of the country and eventually ended up with a Munich art dealer who sold the piece to the Getty.
In 1965, Italian authorities charged the first dealer and three others with theft and illegal sale of state property, claiming the work was part of Italy's cultural heritage. A court in Perugia ruled the next year that the prosecution didn't prove its case, especially that the statue was found in Italian waters and thus was state property. The decision was upheld on appeal.
``We acquired the object after those two cases,'' Brand said. ``At the time, the Italian Ministry of Culture made no claim on the object and made no claim on it after we acquired it.'' More investigations by the Italians in the 1970s and '80s failed to come up with clear proof that the statue was state property.
Yet the controversy wouldn't die. In 1995, Italian authorities approached Marion True, then the Getty's curator of antiquities, seeking the return of the ``Victorious Youth.'' The museum maintained its position that Italy had no valid claim. Still, Italian newspapers continued to report on the case.
``It's fair to say that the status of that object has entered the realm of domestic politics, for whatever reasons,'' Brand said. ``Which, of course, makes it harder for us, because that's nothing we can deal with.''
The Italian position is that the Getty has completely missed the point: Museums shouldn't buy and display smuggled art. The bronze should be considered illicitly trafficked because none of the people who bought and sold it ever declared the statue's export from Italy, as required by law, Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli said.
``We're not talking about legal issues; we're talking about moral issues,'' Rutelli said at a Nov. 23 news conference in Rome, where he outlined the government's decision to hold out for the bronze. ``Can a great international museum exhibit to the public objects that are undoubtedly trafficked?''
He said the Getty should know better than to base its claim on court cases that addressed only the narrow issue of whether the statue had been found in Italian waters -- and not other potential crimes, such as illegal export. While the rulings said there wasn't enough proof to show the bronze was discovered in Italian waters, that's a far cry from saying it was certainly found in international waters, Rutelli said.
``The athlete was found by fishermen off the coast of Italy, and then taken to Italy, then hidden in Italy and then trafficked from Italy,'' Rutelli said.
``There are two possibilities, that it was sold legally or not,'' he said. ``It was clandestinely exported from this country.''
After the U.S. and Italy signed a cultural treaty in 2001 that required the U.S. to return artifacts illegally exported after that year, the Italian government targeted antiquities in several U.S. collections, including the Getty, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
Curator on Trial
Italy also charged two art dealers and former curator True with buying looted artifacts. One dealer has been convicted and the other remains on trial in Rome with True, who denies the charges. True resigned her position at the museum in 2005 after an unrelated ethics scandal related to a personal loan. The Getty continues to pay her legal bills for the Rome trial.
When the Australian-born, Harvard-educated Brand arrived at the Getty in late 2005, after serving as director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, he quickly sought to resolve the disputes with both the Greek and Italian governments. Among the 52 objects sought by Italy was another of the museum's most important works, a marble and limestone sculpture of a goddess in flowing robes popularly known as the Aphrodite, which the Getty bought in 1988 from a London dealer for $18 million.
By last October, before talks broke down, the Getty had agreed in principle to return 26 objects and Italy had agreed to drop its claim to six others. Ownership of the remaining artworks, including the Aphrodite, was still to be resolved.
Since then the Getty has dropped its resistance to returning the Aphrodite, and last month it conducted a scholarly workshop on the origins of the sculpture. While the study yielded no definitive answers, it reinforced the museum's view that the statue came from southern Italy or Sicily.
``We acknowledge that the Italian claim is a serious claim,'' Brand said in an interview after the workshop. ``We have doubts about what we've been told about the provenance.''
Brand repeated an earlier offer to transfer title to the Aphrodite immediately and physically return the object to Italy within a year, after completing study of it. Yet Italy's Ministry of Culture declined to participate in the workshop and hasn't responded to Brand's offer to transfer title. (The Sicilian Ministry of Culture sent a representative to the workshop.)
``We've seen some reports that imply that this is a delaying tactic,'' Brand said. ``This is absolutely not a delaying tactic. The object could already have a label saying `Property of the republic of Italy, on loan to the Getty.'''
At this point, the dispute all comes back to the Getty Bronze, an issue that Brand says is beyond his control.
``This is really something, in the end, that the Italian side has to resolve, because I can't recommend to our board of trustees to return that object because we don't believe there is any reason to do so. We have presented that information to the Italians. It is up to them to find some way through that impasse.''
Italy still insists that any agreement include the Getty Bronze, said Maurizio Fiorilli, a government lawyer who represents the Ministry of Culture in negotiations with museums.
``No matter what location it was fished from, it was a work that entered Italy and should have been declared to customs. This piece should be confiscated,'' Fiorilli said last month. ``The Getty knows this very well.''
Brand says an agreement with the minister of culture is still possible, and so far the disagreement hasn't broadened into an outright cultural boycott.
``The good news is that we've had confirmation from Minister Rutelli's office that, for the moment, it should be business as usual,'' Brand said. ``They ask for loans from us, we ask for loans from them. It remains to be seen whether the loans actually take place. We are hoping they will; we've been told they will go ahead. Our foundation is still working on projects in Italy. The Getty Conservation Institute is still planning projects with Italian colleagues.''
Yet he's concerned that business as usual ``might not last forever. I'm just hoping that reason will prevail. I just hope that, in this day and age, the talk of cultural embargoes really hasn't any place. What would a boycott mean? That Italians aren't able to access Getty databases? That Getty books can't be sold in Italy? It harms exhibitions. There must be better ways of dealing with this,'' he said, shaking his head.
``We remain absolutely ready to talk anytime if there's something constructive to talk about. There are other objects that we haven't reached agreement on yet, and we're perfectly happy to talk about them.''