More twists in the dispute over coveted Getty bronze statue

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The long-running soap opera that is the dispute between Italy and the J. Paul Getty Museum over looted antiquities is heading for a climax, but like any good melodrama still has a few surprises to deliver. The latest is a report in The Times today about the discovery of documents showing that billionaire oil man Getty and another potential buyer were troubled by the questionable legal status of a bronze statue whose ownership is still being disputed.

In fact, closing arguments are scheduled Friday in Pesaro, Italy, in a battle over the work that some believe was created by Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor and plundered by Roman soldiers around the time of Christ before being lost at sea. A regional public prosecutor alleges that the Italian fishermen who discovered the Greek statue in 1964 failed to declare it to Italian customs officials and sold it to middlemen, who smuggled it out of the country. The Getty purchased it in 1977 and displays it at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.

‘This is very important,’ Maurizio Fiorilli, who represents Italy’s culture ministry in the trial, says of one document in particular -- a 1976 letter in which one of Getty’s closest advisors refers to the museum’s ‘exploits over the bronze statue’ as a ‘crime.’

Not so, counters Getty general counsel Stephen Clark. ‘I wouldn’t draw the conclusion that this acknowledges there was some crime,’ he said. Read the full account by Jason Felch here.


--Lee Margulies

This mischaracterizes a 1976 letter to museum director Stephen Garrett. The letter from the late antiquities expert and Getty adviser Bernard Ashmole, which referred to the museum’s ‘exploits over the bronze statue’ as a ‘crime,’ was describing a different bronze statue in the museum’s collection. Garrett, who initially told The Times the letter referred to the bronze athlete, now says he was mistaken.