ECHR rules Italy justified in bid to confiscate 2000-year-old sculpture from California museum News
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ECHR rules Italy justified in bid to confiscate 2000-year-old sculpture from California museum

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) affirmed Italy’s right to recover a millennia-old bronze sculpture from a Malibu museum on Thursday in a case that weighed the importance of a nation’s cultural heritage against fundamental property rights.

The sculpture, Victorious Youth, dates back to 300-100 BCE. While its creator has not been positively identified, it is broadly attributed to Lysippos, a prolific artist known for his lifelike renderings of the male form. Victorious Youth depicts a young man wearing an olive wreath on his head.

According to court documents, Italian fishermen discovered the sculpture in the Adriatic Sea in 1964. It changed hands at least twice via private sales in the first year after its discovery and then disappeared for several years, eventually reemerging in Munich.

The Italian government sought the sculpture’s return on multiple occasions. As early as 1970, while it remained missing, Italian authorities charged the initial purchasers with the receipt and handling of stolen goods, asserting the sculpture was an archaeological object that belonged to the state. These charges unraveled due to a combination of the original purchasers’ lack of apparent knowledge that the sculpture was state property as well as a dispute over whether the sculpture was retrieved in Italian or then-Yugoslavian/now-Croatian waters.

In 1973, Italian authorities discovered the sculpture had resurfaced in the home of Heinz Herzer, a Munich-based art dealer, and sought its return. German authorities brought charges against the art dealer but these too ultimately failed for a lack of evidence, leading the Italian government to drop its investigation.

In 1976, American oil tycoon and antiquities collector Jean Paul Getty Sr. expressed an interest in acquiring the sculpture for his then-new museum but was wary of the potential for title disputes given its murky provenance. Getty died during negotiations, and the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust purchased the sculpture shortly thereafter in 1977, accepting the title was clean in part based on assurances from the Munich art dealer’s Italian lawyer that “even the Italians admit that we do have a clear title to this Bronze.”

The sculpture arrived in the US the same year, spurring another investigation by the Italian authorities. Customs officials teamed up with Interpol to investigate, but in 1978, Italy once again dropped its pursuit, concluding that confiscation from the US could not move forward due to a lack of evidence and the tolling of the relevant statutes of limitations.

Over the following decades, Italian authorities engaged in a range of legal, diplomatic, and administrative efforts to recover the sculpture, but to no avail.

Then in 2006, Italian authorities were once again spurred into action. Back in 1976, when Getty first moved to acquire the bronze, he had initially considered doing so jointly with Thomas Hoving of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Hoving dropped out of the deal, and 30 years later, went public with claims that while Getty had been holding out for written authorization of the sale from the Italian authorities, the Trust ultimately opted to purchase the sculpture without this.

This spurred a protracted series of new legal proceedings in Italy, ultimately leading the Court of Cassation to conclude that the statute was a piece of Italian heritage regardless of its exact location when found due to the fact it was recovered by an Italian-flagged boat, supplemented with historical analysis of the Greek civilization on now-Italian territory. Accordingly, the Italian courts concluded, the bronze indeed belonged to Italy’s cultural heritage and was thus national property.

In July 2019, Italian prosecutors asked US authorities to assist in confiscating it. The legal process remains unresolved at present, per court documents.

In 2021, the Getty Trust lodged an application with the ECHR seeking to deny Italy’s claim of rightful ownership on various grounds, including:

The applicants complain under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 [of the European Convention on Human Rights] that the confiscation of the Statue was based on an unprecise and unforeseeable legal framework; did not pursue a legitimate aim, in that the Bronze was found in international waters and thus did not form part of Italy’s cultural and artistic heritage; and constituted a disproportionate interference with their property rights, particularly having regard to the delays on the part of the State and the absence of any compensation.

In Thursday’s decision, the ECHR ruled unanimously that the confiscation order did not violate the convention, emphasizing that safeguarding cultural heritage is a legitimate interest under the Convention and international law, particularly in combating illegal export and ensuring public access to art.

The Court determined the Trust was “at the very least, negligent, if not in bad faith,” when purchasing the sculpture given Getty’s title reservations, and determined:

The legal basis for the contested measure was sufficiently clear, foreseeable and compatible with the rule of law, and that it was therefore compliant with the principle of lawfulness within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.