Getty Bronze vs Italy: A statue divides

BN Goswamy

Lysippus modelled Alexander’s daring and his whole form.

How great is the power of this bronze! The brazen king

seems to be gazing at Zeus and about to say:

“I set Earth under my feet; thyself, Zeus, possess Olympus.”

— An epigram
by Asclepiades

As I sit down to write, I realise that this piece can go in different directions: three at least. One, it can be about one of the greatest sculptors of ancient Greece who is celebrated in the same breath as Skopas and Polykleitos of ca. 4th century BC. Two, about the romance attached to great sunken treasures fished out from the ocean bed, purely by chance, by fishermen working in the eastern Mediterranean in particular. Three, about controversies that keep raging in the international art and legal circles about the return of antiquities by museums and private collectors to the countries of their origin.

(L-R) Fragment of the weary ‘Farnese Herakles’. Roman marble copy of a bronze, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Portrait, in marble, of Alexander the Great. Athena Gallery, the Louvre, Paris; Portrait of Socrates; possibly a Roman copy in marble of a bronze, by Lysippos. 1st century CE, also at the Louvre, Paris.

At the centre of my thoughts in any case is a sculpture — one of the most engaging and justly admired works to have come from the ancient world — by Lysippos, contemporary and favourite of Alexander, which is at present in the celebrated Getty Museum in the Pacific Palisades of Los Angeles. Known and published now under different names — ‘the Fano Athlete’, the ‘Victorious Youth’, the ‘Getty Bronze’. It was lost to the world till 1964, even though dating back about 2,200 years, when a group of Italian fishermen, plying their vessel close to Fano in the Adriatic Sea, pulled it out from the sea bed, completely covered by barnacles and other marine life from its centuries underwater. There was excitement among the fishermen even though they could only guess that this barnacle-covered and slimy green object was a heavy metal statue; the ‘find’ was taken ashore; the piece was secretly offered to a dealer who involved a priest, and paid the equivalent of $3,500 to the fishermen. Everything was done under cover to keep it all away from the eyes of police: rough scrapers and sharp instruments were used to ‘clean it up a bit’. A great deal of activity followed: the piece was smuggled in vans and hidden in garages, under a priest’s stairs, buried in a cabbage patch, for avoiding detection. It kept changing hands, but it was not till it landed in Munich with the German art dealer, Herzer, and was with great care restored, that its final glimmering shape emerged: a young man, ‘naked but not nude’ as has been said, at the threshold of youth, lips lightly parted, a hovering nascent smile, standing contrapposto, right hand raised lightly pointing towards the laurel wreath of leaves he now wears — almost lost in his curly hair — having emerged victorious in some contest. All at once, charm and innocence and the first flush of youth lurk and shine in the work. A bronze like none other, one might say. The Getty is extremely rich in ancient bronzes, but this work is meant when anyone speaks of the ‘Getty Bronze’.

Within a short span of time, the world was beginning to wake up to this bronze: dealers, collectors, authorities. Questions were being asked, of course, and speculation was rife. Who did the work belong to? Could it be attributed to Lysippos with confidence? Why was it being transported from Greece to Italy? Was the fishing boat in Italy’s territorial waters? Were the Italian authorities entitled to seize it? And so on. But the reputation of the work, and interest in it — Roman copies of Greek copies were one thing, but this was one of the very few life-size bronze statues to have survived from Greece — was growing. One of the most avid of collectors, the oil magnate of Croesus-like riches, J Paul Getty, got interested and even entertained at one time the thought of acquiring the work in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: after due diligence and clean paper-work, of course. There were counter-moves on in Italy at the same time where cases had been filed: charges of wrongdoing, including theft and smuggling, filling the air. One of the Italian courts dismissed the charges after imposing fines on the fishermen who had sold it to dealers against patrimony laws of the land. The air was clearing for acquisition, however: at least in the eyes of the Getty Trust. J Paul Getty himself died in 1976, but the deal had been more or less struck by that time: 3.58 million US dollars. In 1977, the Victorious Youth of Greece had turned into the Getty Bronze.

But it was not over yet: nothing is. Italian courts were still in the picture, for cases continued to be filed. For 10 long years, bitter arguments went on in Italy’s highest court: the Court of Cassation. In 2018, that court pronounced its judgment: the bronze was found in Italian waters and improperly smuggled out of the country. Therefore, it belongs to Italy and must be returned. “It is the last word from Italian justice,” the prosecutor stated. The Getty is in no mood to agree. Their argument, first, is that the bronze is Greek, not Italian: “it is not and has never been part of Italy’s cultural heritage.” The museum also says that the Romans probably took the statue from its original location in Greece in 100 BC-100 AD, and when it was being transported to Italy, a shipwreck caused the statue to sink and got preserved in the sea. “Accidental discovery by Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object,” the museum says. “Found outside the territory of any modern state, and immersed in the sea for two millennia, the Bronze has only a fleeting and incidental connection with Italy.”

All arguments in place, the Museum plans to fight it out: “defend our legal right to the statue”. Incidentally, the Museum has also agreed to return to Italy close to 40 other objects, but not the Getty Bronze. It is up to international fora of justice now.

Meanwhile, there is time to take in the sight of some other great works that Lysippos produced in his lifetime: some 1,500 bronzes according to an estimate by Pliny, Roman author of the early Christian Era. A stunning ‘portrait’ of Alexander, his patron, for instance; another of Socrates, the great philosopher; a rendering of the fatigued Herakles after he had overcome the Nemean Lion.

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