November 5, 2007

Art pieces relinquished to Italy

Posted at 1:44 pm in Similar cases

Princeton University’s Art Museum is giving Italy legal title to some of the disputed artefacts in their collection.

The Daily Princetonian

Monday, November 5, 2007
Art pieces relinquished to Italy
By Kelly Lack
Princetonian Staff Writer

The University Art Museum will give the Italian Culture Ministry legal title to eight of 15 disputed art pieces, the two organizations said last week.

Museum representatives and Italian authorities signed an agreement on Oct. 30 in Rome resolving ownership of the artifacts. Under the settlement, four of the objects will be returned to Italy within 60 days, while another four will stay at the museum on loan for four years. The University will keep the other seven pieces.

The agreement was reached after “examin[ing] all the facts and circumstances surrounding the purchase of each item questioned by Italian officials” and deciding in which instances “there were sufficient concerns regarding the objects’ provenance,” museum director Susan Taylor said in a statement.

“Regarding these specific items [that the University is keeping], we can now say with a clear conscience that the works we have are rightfully ours,” University spokeswoman Cass Cliatt ’96 said.

Questions arose about ownership of three pieces in December 2004 when the Italian government initiated an inquiry into the artifacts. The University responded to the inquiry in January 2005 by providing details about several of the works in its museum collection.

The objects staying at the art museum on loan include a red water jar called a loutrophoros from southern Italy, dated to 335 to 325 B.C.; an Etruscan head of a winged lion made of brown volcanic stone dated to 550 to 525 B.C.; and a Greek vessel called a psykter, which was used to cool wine and was dated to 510 to 500 B.C.

Prosecutors claimed the University bought one of the objects, the psykter, from American art dealer Robert Hecht in 1989 for $350,000. The vessel was stolen from Cerveteri, an Etruscan site north of Rome, by tomb raiders. Hecht, who is now on trial in Rome, has denied any illegal activity.

In April 2006, Taylor and Senior University Counsel and Assistant Secretary Lorraine Sciarra met with Italian authorities to discuss several works the Italian government alleged were illegally acquired.

Cliatt said that the art museum adopted “a conservative acquisition policy” last year, explaining that this policy abided by the standards established at a 1970 U.N. convention.

The University acquired the eight items it will return to Italy between 1989 and 1995, Cliatt added. “[The agreement] recognizes that legal title rested with Princeton before the transfer, and that the works were purchased by Princeton in good faith,” she said.

The agreement also stipulates that the Italian government will let the University borrow a number of additional works of art and give Princeton students access to Italian excavation sites for archeological research. This partnership “will yield important opportunities for students in the field of archeology and art history,” Cliatt said.

Taylor said the University’s settlement with Italy achieved two primary objectives. “First, it is consistent with our longstanding commitment to responsible stewardship of our collections,” she said. “Second, it encourages the development of future opportunities for collaboration that will advance new scholarship in both Italy and the United States.”

Though few disputes arise concerning legal rights to artifacts, the settlement reflects a recent global trend of returning works to their countries of origin.

In August, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles gave the Italian government titles to 40 antiquities, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston each returned several pieces to Italy last year.

For a decade, the Greek government and the British Museum have been locked in a dispute over ownership of the Elgin Marbles, a set of sculptures from the Acropolis. They were taken with permission from Ottoman officials in the 19th century, but Greece wants them back on artistic and moral grounds.

This is not the first time the University Art Museum has been involved in disputes with the Italian government about artwork.

In 2002, the museum returned an ancient Roman sculptural relief after discovering that the item had been smuggled out of Italy before the museum acquired it in good faith in 1985. In 1953, the museum returned an ancient marble head of a goat that had been looted during World War II, though the mayor of Rome later allowed Princeton to keep the sculpture.

The art museum does not have any “usual” procedure for settling ownership disputes, Cliatt said, adding that the conflicts are resolved on a case-by-case basis. There are no other pending ownership disputes with the University.

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