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The Getty’s side

MICHAEL BRAND is the director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

I am saddened that talks between the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Italian government over Italy’s claim to objects in the museum’s antiquities collection have broken down. I want to make it clear that the Getty remains open to resuming those discussions.

When I became director at the museum last December, I made it a priority to resolve claims not only of Italy but of the Greek government. I visited Rome to begin negotiations within my first month of full-time work, and Athens a little while later. We have made great progress in our negotiations with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture: We have returned two works of art and are in the final stages of resolving the status of the two remaining objects.

The Getty entered its discussions with Italy in the same spirit. The Italians challenged Getty ownership of 52 objects. I was heartened when Italy’s minister of culture, Francesco Rutelli, confirmed my feeling that an accord could be reached but that it would require compromise on both sides. In June, an agreement in principle was reached, and on Oct. 5, both parties signed a “term sheet” that set out what had been agreed on and established a process for working toward resolution of the remaining issues.

It was agreed, for example, that the Getty would return 26 objects and that Italy would drop claims on six objects as well as provide significant loans to the Getty. We asked Italy to consider a creative solution for the “Cult Statue of a Goddess,” -- the so-called Aphrodite -- involving immediate joint ownership during a period of collaborative research, and then, if necessary, a willingness to submit to neutral, binding arbitration to resolve its ultimate fate. With respect to the “Statue of a Victorious Youth” -- the so-called Getty Bronze -- a Greek statue of an athlete found in international waters off the coast of Italy in 1964, the Getty agreed to provide a formal, written position regarding our claim to ownership.

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At the conclusion of the meeting, the Getty team returned to L.A. believing this deal (which we were assured was fully authorized) had finally provided a fair path to resolving past differences and a framework for future collaboration between the Getty and Italy.

But then everything changed on the Italian side, for reasons that no Italian official has been able, or willing, to explain. In correspondence with the Getty, the Italian Ministry of Culture put forward new demands, as if terms had not been agreed on in October. We were also disappointed to be informed that joint ownership of the cult statue would not be possible. What was even more discouraging, however, was that before receiving our document on the “Statue of a Victorious Youth,” Italy announced unilaterally that no final agreement would be possible without the transfer of this one object.

Believing that face-to-face discussions were the only way to bring our negotiations back on track, I led a team back to Rome in early November. We came to that meeting, presided over by Rutelli at the beginning and end, prepared to make significant compromises, including the immediate transfer of title to the cult statue. Eventually we were told formally -- for the first time in almost 10 months of negotiations -- that the political climate in Italy precluded any agreement without the transfer of the “Statue of a Victorious Youth.” With no room for further discussion, the meeting ended.

I cannot compromise on the “Statue of a Victorious Youth.” The Getty is a California trust, which means in essence that our collections are publicly held. No director of any such museum can “de-accession” or transfer ownership of works of art without a legal basis.

I understand that Italy’s claim to the bronze is an emotional and political issue. But such claims cannot override the substantial legal evidence supporting the Getty’s ownership of the statue, including the fact that the statue was obtained by the museum in 1977 only after Italian courts had declared that there was no evidence that it belonged to Italy. Indeed, in all Italian legal proceedings regarding the bronze, the Culture Ministry has never before asserted a legal claim for this object.

I believe that the Getty would have already finalized its agreement with Italy if the unique bronze athlete had not been part of the mix. Nonetheless, I still believe that a fair and reasonable agreement can be achieved. I would welcome the opportunity to show the minister the Getty Villa, the only museum in the United States dedicated to Roman, Etruscan and Greek art and culture. I am eager for him to see personally the effect the magnificent works of art displayed there have on the public and scholars, who visit the Getty from around the world. It is for these visitors, who clearly value the ability of art to illuminate our shared histories, that we must find a mutually satisfactory and comprehensive solution.

Whether or not that happens in the immediate future, I believe it is appropriate for the Getty to return to Italy the 26 objects included in the agreement we signed jointly in October. I also believe that it is appropriate for the Getty to continue to study the origin and ownership history of the Aphrodite statue for up to one year. If at the end of that year we cannot conclusively present a legal case for Getty ownership of the statue, it too will be given to Italy.

Similarly, we plan to provide the ministry with information related to all of the other objects claimed by Italy so there can be no doubt about the seriousness of our efforts to resolve those claims based on solid research of all available evidence. Regrettably, however, as matters now stand, we will be going forward with these returns and this research without any guarantee of reciprocal loans from Italy.

The Getty and the Italian ministry must find a way to resolve our impasse, or both sides risk jeopardizing the extraordinary exchange of ideas and knowledge that emerges from international collaboration in the study and preservation of Italy’s cultural heritage. We have already introduced a new acquisitions policy -- one that makes the Getty the first U.S. art museum to adopt strict UNESCO standards -- as our contribution to our mutual goal of eliminating the desecration of archeological sites and the illicit trade in antiquities.

We acknowledge that the Getty must do its part to resolve this matter. But Italy must resist the temptation to allow political concerns to eclipse the goal of art museums around the world to give the public access to our shared art and cultural heritage.


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