This story has been updated. Please see below for details.
The "Getty Bronze," a 300s BC highlight of Los Angeles' most eminent collection of classical antiquities, depicts a slender young athlete frozen in a moment of triumph.
On Thursday, a legal bid in Italy to wrest the laureled figure from the J. Paul Getty Trust after 37 years became frozen as well.
The Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest court, had been expected to decide whether to uphold a lower court’s order that the Getty return the life-size, footless figure, also known as "Victorious Youth."
Instead, Stephen Clark, the Getty's general counsel, said that word came from the Trust's attorney in Rome that the court had issued a one-line statement signifying an indefinite delay: “Stayed pending hearing by the Constitutional Court.”
What that means is a matter of speculation for now, Clark said, but it probably signals a long wait before a decision is reached on the fate of the statue, which resides alone in a special climate-controlled gallery at the Getty Villa antiquities museum in Pacific Palisades.
“My best guess is that there would not be any decision for another year,” he said.
In rulings in 2010 and 2012, a lower court in Italy’s Marche region ordered the Getty to hand over the bronze, reversing a 2007 ruling by a different judge rejecting a prosecutor's request to order the statue's return.
The statue had been pulled from the Adriatic Sea in 1964 in the nets of a fishing boat from the Italian port of Fano. The fishermen made their catch many miles off Italy’s coast, in international waters. Its style and age indicate ancient Greek rather than Roman origins.
The Getty appealed the order to return the statue, arguing that Italy has no legal basis for claiming to own it. A 1939 law makes all cultural objects found in Italian territory state property. But the Getty says that the law doesn’t cast a net wide enough to snare anything that came from the open sea, beyond Italy’s territorial waters.
Clark said he could only speculate about the meaning of the Court of Cassation’s reference to a hearing by the separate Constitutional Court.
One possibility, he said, is that the Getty’s appeal might have to start again from scratch in the Constitutional Court. Another is that before it makes a decision, the Court of Cassation will await the outcome of a comparable property seizure case that’s currently before the Constitutional Court. Clark said the Getty had cited that case in its appeal.
He said that case has to do with real estate developers whose building was ordered seized after they were found guilty of building without a permit. They appealed the verdict, Clark said, but never got a ruling affirming or denying their guilt because of Italian judicial rules that require court proceedings to be dropped if they aren’t concluded by a legally prescribed deadline. Clark said that the developers took the issue to the Constitutional Court, arguing that because time had expired on their appeal, there had been no final determination that they were guilty, making it unconstitutional to confiscate their property.
The parallel for the Getty, Clark said, is that it has never been found guilty of breaking any Italian law in its acquisition of "Victorious Youth," so it shouldn’t have to give the statue up.
From the late 1960s to mid-1970s, Italian authorities investigated the fishermen and the buyers to whom they’d sold the statue, but never mustered enough evidence for a conviction for hiding the statute from authorities or exporting it without a permit.
Decades later, in 2007, a drive by citizens of Fano to get the statue back fell short when a regional judge rejected the effort. But local prosecutors persisted, securing rulings in 2010 and 2012 that ordered the statue's return.
While one of the judges who ordered the statue's return said that the Getty's 1977 purchase of the bronze reflected "grave negligence," Clark said the legal basis for the ruling "has never been clear." He said prosecutors had argued that it didn't matter that the statue had been fished from international waters, because it wound up on Italian soil after being hauled aboard a vessel sailing under the Italian flag.
The Getty’s position is that the statue belonged to the fishermen all along in a case of finders-keepers, givng them every right to sell their own private property, and making its subsequent resale to the Getty a legitimate transaction.
American and foreign museums sometimes have returned looted objects to their countries of origin out of the conviction that it's the right thing to do, even if not legally required. That was the case in the Norton Simon Museum's recent return to Cambodia of a prized 1,100-year-old statue of a figure from the Hindu epic the Mahabarata after evidence surfaced that it had been looted from a temple while Cambodia was in turmoil during the late 1960s and '70s.
But there's no evidence that the "Getty Bronze" was looted — just lost and found at sea — and the Getty and others have questioned whether a statue that apparently was made in Greece even qualifies as part of Italy's cultural patrimony.
For the record, June 5, 5:05 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Getty counsel Stephen Clark was in Rome. Another attorney for the Getty was there and received a communication from the court.