August 12, 2007
Prompted by the Getty’s settlement with the Italian Government, the Economist newspaper looks at the implications of the shift in museum attitudes to restitution in recent years.
Sending them home
Aug 11th 2007
Are museums are losing their grip?
THE Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return 40 of its treasures to Italy earlier this month, resolving a dispute that had rumbled on for several years. The Italian government argued that all the items had been stolen or looted in the first place. So the Getty, although it had paid for them, had no lawful right to keep the pieces. Most had been excavated in Italy and then illegally exported, in violation of a 1939 law ruling that all archaeological property belongs to the Italian state. The most important of the artefacts to be returned is a 7ft marble and limestone statue of the goddess Aphrodite, which the Getty bought 20 years ago for about $18m.
Neither the Getty Museum nor the Italians got exactly what they wanted out of the deal. The Italians had pushed for the restitution of 46 items, while the Getty had earlier offered just 26. Furthermore, another prime bit of famous statuary, a 2,500-year-old bronze of a victorious youth, still remains the subject of fierce disagreement.
Nonetheless, the deal represents a significant landmark in the worldwide controversy over the legal ownership of national treasures that remain in other country’s museums. Italy alone has had disputes with not only the Getty Museum, but also the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And earlier this year the Getty, after another protracted dispute, agreed to return four artefacts to Greece.
Ethiopia, formerly the ancient state of Abyssinia, has launched a campaign to reclaim many of its treasures taken by successive waves of invading foreigners as part of its Millennium celebrations that start in September. The country, one of the earliest Christian kingdoms, follows its own calendar. Among the more unusual items that it wants back are the remains of Prince Alemayehu, interred in Windsor Castle. The boy-prince was seized by the British during an imperial dispute in the mid-19th century and taken to England where he died shortly afterwards.
The Italians have been accused of a touch of hypocrisy over the return of artefacts. A conservation group, Italia Nostra, has appealed against the possible restitution of a statue of Venus from a museum in Rome to Libya. This was removed by Italian troops from the ancient Greek settlement of Cyrene on the Libyan coast in 1912, a year after it became an Italian colony. The Libyans have been trying to get it back since 1989, and an Italian court recently seemed to have clinched its homeward journey, arguing that the statue’s excavation could “in no way be catalogued as a discovery on Italian soil.” Italia Nostra, however, argues that the Italians did not steal the statue but “discovered by chance in Cyrene, which was then under Italian rule.” The case continues.
However, the most famous outstanding case of art restitution remains the Elgin marbles in the British Museum in London. These comprise about half the frieze that once ran around the Parthenon on the Acropolis in ancient Athens, as well as many sculptures from the site. Lord Elgin, a British diplomat, transported the marbles back to London about 200 years ago. For decades the Greek government has waged a campaign to get them back, so far to no avail.
Will the deal between the Getty Museum and the Italian government have any effect on the case of the Elgin marbles? Probably not, as the Greek legal claim on the marbles is less clear-cut than the Italian government’s is on the Getty artefacts. For a start, when Lord Elgin took them Greece was part of the Ottoman empire, and so was not a legal body at the time. And the passage of time, so argues the British Museum, means that by now the Elgin marbles are as much a part of the museum’s famous collection as they are a part of Greece’s national heritage. The Greeks, however, have built a new Acropolis Museum for them to come back to, which is scheduled to open early next year, at which point demands for the return of the marbles are sure to resume.
- Museum of Fine Arts deal with Italy : October 4, 2006
- Getty may return Greek artefacts : May 16, 2006
- Getty offers to return three disputed artefacts : October 8, 2005
- Getty to return 40 Italian antiquities : August 3, 2007
- New York museum returns antiquities to Italy : February 22, 2006
- Will Getty agreement with Greece affect the Elgin Marbles? : May 18, 2006
- Italy gets serious over looted antiquities : July 12, 2007
- Francesco Rutelli & the Getty : August 4, 2007