Italy’s Supreme Court Demands the Getty Museum to Surrender the “Getty Bronze” - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Italy’s Supreme Court Demands the Getty Museum to Surrender the “Getty Bronze”

Italy’s Supreme Court Demands the Getty Museum to Surrender the “Getty Bronze”

In 1977, the J. Paul Getty Museum purchased an ancient bronze sculpture for $4 million (€3.5 million) from a German art dealer, making it one of the most expensive statues at the time.1 The “Statue of a Victorious Youth,” also known as the “Getty Bronze,” has been proudly on view for the past four decades as one of the museum’s most prized artworks.2 The 2,000-year-old bronze youth, who is seen crowning himself with an olive wreath, has been at the center of a legal dispute between Italy and the Getty Museum for almost as long as it has been displayed to the public.3 On December 4, 2018 —after 11 years of litigation — Italy’s supreme court ordered for the statue to be returned to Italy immediately.4

The two-millennia-old sculpture’s murky past is at the heart of the legal battle. Although the statue’s exact journey is unclear, both parties do not dispute that Italian fishermen discovered the sculpture in international waters in 1964 and that the Getty Museum bought it from a German art dealer about a decade later.5 The Getty persistently claims that although the sculpture was found by Italians, there is no evidence that proves that the “Victorious Youth” originated or belongs to Italy.6 The museum points to the 1968 decision by the Italian Court of Cassation, which ruled that “it couldn’t establish where the artifact had come from or what it was worth.”7 The Getty claims that the statue “originated in Greece and was probably being shipped to a Roman settlement, but was lost at sea before it ever reached what is now Italy.”8 It further posits that “accidental discovery by Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object. Found outside the territory of any modern state, and immersed in the sea for two millennia, the Bronze has only a fleeting and incidental connection with Italy.”9

Italy disputes this recount of the statue’s origin and argues that the artifact was illegally smuggled out of the country.10 It claims that the fisherman from the province of Fano had no right to sell an archeological heritage, which is considered property of the state and the Italian people.11 During court proceedings, the Italian government provided evidence that the fisherman had hastily sold the work to an Italian art dealer, Giacomo Barbetti, without reporting the discovery to the local government.12 According to some accounts, the statue was smuggled in vans, hidden in garages, stored in priest’s stairs, and even buried in a cabbage patch in order to avoid detection before being sold for millions of dollars in Germany.13 Noah Charney, an arts professor who teaches art crime and cultural heritage protection at the Arca postgraduate program commented, “Italy has made a very clear and compelling case that the Lysippos [“Victorious Youth”] was smuggled into Italy, via Fano, and therefore was later smuggled out of Italy…where it was first discovered, whether in Italian or international waters, is therefore a moot point.”14

The December 2018 Supreme Court of Cassation decision came after a decade-long series of appeals following the Italian government’s first formal request in 1989 for the work to be returned.15 In the decision, Italy’s highest court said that the moment the artwork touched the fishermen’s net, the statue became Italy’s property16 and that the Getty showed “unjustifiable carelessness” in buying the sculpture despite its unclear provenance.17

The fate of the “Victorious Youth” is unclear as it is unlikely that the Getty will easily forfeit its prized sculpture. The museum said it “will continue to oppose any effort to remove the ‘Victorian Youth’ from its home in Los Angeles.”18 Italian officials, on the other hand, plan to ask the United States Justice Department to enforce the ruling by seizing the statue.19 The two parties may start a new litigation in the United States or may reach a settlement agreement as they did in 2007. In 2007, in response to an Italian culture minister threatening a “cultural embargo” on the Getty Museum because of the “Getty Bronze,” the museum agreed to return 40 other ancient artifacts to Italy.20 Although the ultimate destination of the “Victorious Youth” is uncertain, it will most likely remain at the Getty Museum for the time being.

  1. Jessica Phelan, Can Italy Force a US Museum to Return this Long-Lost Ancient Greek Sculpture?, THE LOCAL (Dec. 5, 2018), []

  2. Getty Showed “Carelessness” on Lysippos, AGENZIA NAZIONALE STAMPA (Jan. 2, 2019), []

  3. Id.

  4. Angela Giuffrida, Getty Museum Must Return 2,000-Year-Old Statue, Italian Court Rules, THE GUARDIAN (Dec. 5, 2018), []

  5. Deborah Vankin, Getty Loses in Italy’s Supreme Court. What Does that Really Mean for the Museum’s Prized ‘Victorious Youth’?, L.A. TIMES (Dec. 5, 2018), []

  6. Id.

  7. Phelan, supra note 1.

  8. Id.

  9. Vankin, supra note 5.

  10. Phelan, supra note 1.

  11. Id.

  12. Id.

  13. Id.

  14. Giuffrida, supra note 4.

  15. Id.

  16. Vankin, supra note 5.

  17. Getty Showed “Carelessness” on Lysippos, supra note 2.

  18. Vankin, supra note 5.

  19. Gaia Pianigiani, Italian Court Rules Getty Museum Must Return a Prized Bronze, N.Y. TIMES (Dec. 4, 2018), []

  20. Phelan, supra note 1.

Jane Lee

Jane H. Lee is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law. She is a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal and an executive board member of the Fordham Art Law Society. Lee holds a B.A. in Art History from Columbia University.