In the Italian city of Pesaro last month, a court ruled that the Getty Museum’s prized “Victorious Youth” statue should be returned to Italy, and in response, the J. Paul Getty Trust issued a public reply, noting that Italy has no cultural claim on the statue.
Sarah E. Bond
Unknown artist “Victorious Youth” (300–100 B.C.); Greece, bronze with inlaid copper; 151.5 × 70 × 27.9 cm, 64.4108 kg (59 5/8 × 27 9/16 × 11 in., 142 lb.) as it looks today in the Getty Museum’s online catalogue (Image via the Getty Open Content Program)
In the Italian city of Pesaro last month, a court ruled that the Getty Museum’s prized “Victorious Youth” statue should be returned to Italy. In response to the ruling, the spokesperson for the J. Paul Getty Trust quickly issued the trust’s own stance on the piece, noting that Italy has no cultural claim on the statue. This echoes the judgement made by Italian courts in the 1970s, which had determined that the statue was not Italian. Despite these earlier verdicts, the current case had been tied up in Italian courts for over a decade, dredging up issues of provenance and the legality of the statue’s sale to the Getty. This case demonstrates that the ownership of cultural objects found in international waters remains a murky area of law. And while the Getty has agreed to repatriate objects to Italy before, the “Victorious Youth” controversy has proven to be a unique case.
The “Victorious Youth”— also referred to as the “Getty Bronze” or the “Fano Bronze,” depending on your side in the debate — is well known within the world of art and archaeology. The statue is a vivid depiction of a young athlete from the Hellenistic period and is dated to 300–100 BCE. Its value stems from the fact it was created using the “lost-wax casting” technique and is a rare example of an original, life-sized bronze statue. Although bronze statues were common in Greece during the Classical and Hellenistic periods, many ancient metal sculptures were later melted down or reused in some way. Bronze statues such as the “Riace Bronzes” (460–450 BCE) found off the coast of Italy in 1972, and the “Boxer at Rest” (323–31 BCE) found buried in the ground in Rome in the late 19th century both reside in Italian museums. Precious few specimens survive on this side of the Atlantic, making the statue’s display at the Getty Museum a draw for American researchers and tourists alike.
In 1972, the Classical-era Greek statues called the “Riace Bronzes” were found off the coast of Riace Marina in the southern Italian region of Calabria, firmly in Italian waters. The statues are a huge tourist draw in Southern Italy (image via Wikimedia)
The “Victorious Youth” was discovered in the Adriatic Sea in June of 1964 by a northern Italian fishing boat, the Ferrucio Ferri working out of Fano, a port that lies between Ravenna and Ancona. The statue was either tossed from an ancient ship in transit or fell into the sea as a result of a shipwreck. Many have posited it was being transported on a Roman ship sending antiquities back from Greece. Originally, the “Victorious Youth” was likely first erected in a city such as Olympia, as confirmation of an athletic victory. The allowance of a bronze statue was a common honor given to athletes who competed and won their event — usually resulting in the athlete commissioning a statue for the town where he competed (e.g. Olympia) and one for his hometown. The cuts at the ankles of the “Victorious Youth” indicate that it was sawed off and removed from its original statue base, likely in a Greek city, and then shipped across the Adriatic Sea toward Italy. It would be two millennia before he would resurface.
Much of the tale of the statue’s discovery has been pieced together through interviews and testaments of eyewitnesses, curators, and dealers — many of whom are now dead. As Christa Roodt, a professor of art law and business at the University of Glasgow recounted in 2015, the lore surrounding the statue’s surfacing holds that it was first found by Italian fisherman while they were trawling international waters in the Adriatic. It was then smuggled into a seaside Italian town, possibly inside a bathtub. It was initially sold for 3.5 million lira (Around $43,500 dollars today) to Giacomo Barbetti, a nearby Italian dealer who bought and sold antiquities. It was quietly transported to Brazil and later to London, before ultimately being conserved in Germany in 1972, at the workshop of Herzer Heinz…………….