January 27, 2005

Umbrian villagers ask the Met to return stolen chariot

Posted at 9:16 pm in Similar cases

A small village in Italy claim that an Etruscan chariot in the Met in New York was illegally exported from Italy 100 years ago.

Daily Telegraph

Thursday 26 May 2005
Give us back our chariot, Umbrian villagers tell the Metropolitan Museum
By Bruce Johnston in Perugia
(Filed: 30/01/2005)

A tiny Umbrian village is taking on the mighty Metropolitan Museum in New York, claiming that one of its most exalted exhibits, an Etruscan chariot, was illegally exported from Italy 100 years ago.

The sixth-century bronze and ivory chariot, the pride of the museum’s Etruscan collection, was originally sold to two Frenchmen by a farmer who dug it up in a field at Monteleone di Spoleto, near Perugia, in 1902.

According to family lore, the farmer received two cows in exchange. The local mayor, Nando Durastanti, believes that he actually swapped the chariot, one of the world’s greatest antiquities, for 30 terracotta tiles. It was later dismantled and illegally exported from Italy, concealed in a grain shipment.

Dealers from Florence sold it to the Metropolitan in New York in 1903 – allegedly with the help of the financier JP Morgan, who would later become the museum’s director – but Mr Durastanti says that the museum has no right to keep it.

“That chariot is rightfully ours and they’ve got to give it back,” he said last week. “There’s no question. We’ve got a very good case.

“It belongs to our territory and was illegally exported from the country. When it was taken out of Italy, the issue was even raised in parliament in Rome.”

The museum had failed to provide proof of ownership, or that Italy had approved its export, he said.

Said to be the only Etruscan chariot ever found intact, the 14ft by 4ft vehicle, showing scenes from the life of Achilles in relief, was part of a burial treasure.

It was found with the remains of two humans still sitting inside, along with two drinking cups, which helped date it to 530BC. The farmer, Isidoro Vannozzi, is said to have stumbled across it while digging a wine cellar. He hid the treasure in his barn, fearing that the authorities would confiscate it.

The village council in Monteleone (population 662) has instructed solicitors to demand its return from the Metropolitan “to its place of origin and people”.

Tito Mazzetta, a lawyer based in Atlanta, Georgia, who is representing Monteleone, wrote an initial letter to the Metropolitan, demanding that the chariot’s “uniqueness” and cultural importance meant that it should be returned.

Sharon Cott, the vice-president of the museum and its chief legal counsel, said that the Metropolitan “respectfully declined” to give up the exhibit. “The Metropolitan has owned the chariot for over 100 years, long after any legal claim could be timely brought,” she argued.

The museum hoped that Italian dignitaries would attend the opening of its new Roman galleries in 2007, of which the chariot would be the centrepiece. But that would be out of the question, she said, if Monteleone “insisted on pursuing its futile claim” or “adopted some other adversarial posture”.

Undeterred, Mr Mazzetta sent a second letter last week, saying that Monteleone had the backing of Italy’s Commission for Public Education and Antiquities, the Umbrian regional government and 37 cities and towns in the region.

He claimed that Morgan, who became the Metropolitan’s director in 1904, had been instrumental in illegally obtaining the chariot.

Citing the case of an Atlanta museum, which two years ago handed back to Egypt a mummy exported to America in 1864, and Italy’s decision to return a 1,700-year-old Ethiopian obelisk plundered by Mussolini, he challenged the museum to make a “great and civilised gesture worthy of a great institution.

“What makes me so indignant is the offensive way these people viewed Italy,” Mr Mazzetta said last week. “They treated the Italians like so many Indians, flinging a few trinkets at them, knowing they didn’t have the power to fight the likes of powerful people like JP Morgan.

“At the time, the museum’s president, director and trustees, a group of very sophisticated, informed and powerful people, knew full well of the illegal provenance and understood the historical significance of the chariot. But they rode roughshod over the law anyway.”

According to Mr Mazzetta, the sale or export of antiquities unearthed in Umbria, and later in unified Italy, was banned from 1821, while from 1903 new legislation declared them to be “government property”.

Mr Mazzetta said that when Mr Vannozzi sold the chariot, he did so against Italian laws, meaning that subsequent buyers had also broken the law and were in receipt of stolen property.

Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the museum, said that Monteleone’s claim was “like Italy saying it now wants France to give back the Mona Lisa. It’s too late to discuss,” he said.

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