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Object Lesson

Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

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

01/31/07

The question of who owns certain antiquities and where they should be shown faces many art museums in the U.S., Europe and Asia, as well as government officials in "source nations" such as Greece and Italy. Since joining the J. Paul Getty Museum as director in December 2005, one of my top priorities has been to resolve Italian and Greek claims to objects in our antiquities collection.

After a careful review of the evidence, the Getty Museum recently agreed to return four objects claimed by the Greek Ministry of Culture. We look forward to years of cultural cooperation and joint scholarship with our Greek partners. Negotiations with our Italian colleagues have been more challenging given their claim for 52 objects, and the fact that our former curator of antiquities is still on trial in Rome, apparently in an attempt to obtain more leverage against the Getty and other museums.

Nevertheless, we have endeavored for over a year to find common ground with the Italian Ministry of Culture. Each claim for each object has been carefully evaluated: The evidence, including that provided by Italy, has been subjected to critical analysis based on sound scholarship as well as legal and ethical considerations.

In October 2006, we signed an agreement with Italy that set out what we had already come to agree upon, as well as processes for resolving the remaining issues. The Getty agreed to return 26 objects to Italy, including some of our greatest masterpieces. Italy agreed to renounce its claims to six objects, and to provide significant loans to the Getty. With respect to the major unresolved issues, we proposed immediate joint ownership by the Getty and Italy of the Cult Statue of a Goddess, often referred to as "Aphrodite," during a period of collaborative research, and, if necessary, neutral, binding arbitration to resolve its ultimate fate. We also agreed to provide the ministry with a formal, written position supporting our claim to ownership of the Statue of a Victorious Youth, the so-called "Getty Bronze."

We were thus greatly surprised in early November when the Italian Ministry disavowed our agreement. Before even receiving our document on the Getty Bronze, the ministry announced a new position that no final agreement would be possible without the transfer of this one object.

When I led a Getty team back to Rome later that month, we were told by the minister of culture that the political climate in Italy precluded any agreement without the transfer of the Getty Bronze. That demand left no room for further discussion of the other unresolved issues, and the meeting came to an end.

The Italian ultimatum regarding the Getty Bronze is counterproductive. The statue, which was actually made by a Greek artist, 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. Although Italian legal proceedings regarding this statue date back to 1966, the Ministry of Culture has never before asserted a claim to this object in those proceedings. I started these negotiations with a genuine spirit of compromise, but I will not recommend to the Getty's Board of Trustees the transfer of a publicly held work of art in response to a claim that is not supported by facts or international law.

I deeply regret that a claim to just one object has become a roadblock to resolution of the remaining issues and a pathbreaking agreement with Italy. Whether or not we can find a way forward in the immediate future, the Getty remains committed to returning the 26 objects to Italy as agreed in October. I have communicated this to the ministry but I have yet to receive a reply.

The Getty will do its part to resolve this matter but, for the good of museums everywhere, political concerns must not eclipse a shared cultural responsibility to provide public access to the world's artistic heritage.

 

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