Just this Monday I stopped by the Getty Villa for a meeting. I did not have much time between the end of my meeting and the closing of the museum but I had to run up to the second floor of the museum to the specially designed and climate-controlled room containing the controversial ‘Victorious Youth’ bronze statue. Before visiting the ‘Victorious Youth’, I stopped by the nearby gallery containing the striking Chimaera on loan from the Museo Archeologico di Firenze in accordance with the recent agreements made between the Italian government and the J. Paul Getty Museum for the return of some 40 artifacts. Although the Chimaera is a beautiful piece which exemplifies the skilled workmanship of Etruscan bronzeworkers, it holds nothing in grandeur and mystery to the Victorious Youth.
The ‘Victorious Youth’, alternatively known as the ‘Getty Bronze’, is not only a stunning example of the heights of Greek art but a perfect microcosm of the question of cultural patrimony, ownership and heritage. As I mentioned in the post ‘A Twist in Getty Museum’s Italian Court Battle’, the provenance of this object is if anything an example of the ancient battles over art, heritage and the ensuing looting of the vanquished cultures. Notwithstanding this questionable ownership, the Italian judge seemed to have already in June decided on the case, ruling the bronze to be “part of Italy’s cultural patrimony, despite the short time it spent in the country’.” This premature judgment indicates that the Italian judicial system in this case is perhaps forgoing pure application of law to determine ownership in favor of a political power play to re-establish control over the countries most lucrative ‘natural’ resource — antiquities. This supposition is supported by the aggressive language used in the judge’s ruling, calling for the bronze to be “confiscated from the museum”. Italy’s former culture minister, Francesco Rutelli, echoed the judge’s proprietary statements claiming, ‘Today marks the end of the sacking of our archaeological treasures.’
This renewed issue of ownership, which seemed to be resolved after the return of 40 indisputably looted objects to the Italian government brings into question whether there is a better framework in which to resolve these issues. The sovereignty of international law is tenuous at best with little power for enforcement beyond political posturing and a backdrop of carrots and sticks. Could an international organization be formed to arbitrate these claims?