A twist in Getty Museum’s Italian court saga

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Was the J. Paul Getty Museum acting in good faith when it purchased one of the finest ancient bronze statues in existence?

That will be the central question before an Italian judge after Friday’s closing arguments in a long-running legal battle in Pesaro, Italy.

Bronze statue: A Jan. 14th article in Section A about an Italian legal case involving the J. Paul Getty Museum’s statue of a bronze athlete mischaracterized 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. —

At stake is a much-coveted work believed by some to have been 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’s general counsel Stephen Clark recently told Judge Lorena Mussoni that an exhaustive review of Getty files found no evidence that museum officials knew the statue had been smuggled.

But the Getty’s review missed at least one key document: a 1976 letter in which one of J. Paul Getty’s closest advisors refers to the museum’s “exploits over the bronze statue” as a “crime.”

The letter and other documents uncovered by a Times reporter show that the billionaire oilman and another potential buyer were troubled by the questionable legal status of the statue.

Maurizio Fiorilli, who represents Italy’s culture ministry in the trial, said in a telephone interview that he was not aware of the 1976 letter, despite the Getty’s claims that all relevant documents had been described to the court. It is too late to enter the document into evidence, but Fiorilli said he planned to bring it up in his closing arguments Friday.

“This is very important,” Fiorilli said.

In an interview, Clark said he had missed the letter during his records review but dismissed its importance.

“I wouldn’t draw the conclusion that this acknowledges there was some crime,” he said. Because the Getty bought the statue in good faith, he insisted, “Italy has no legal foundation for a claim.”

The case is probably the final chapter in the Getty’s long dispute with Italy over looted antiquities, which largely ended in 2007 when the museum agreed to return 40 of its most prized antiquities after concluding they had been looted and illegally exported.

The criminal allegations in the case were filed amid those heated negotiations, and are largely moot: The fishermen are all dead, and the alleged smugglers have never been identified.

The judge is nevertheless weighing whether to order the seizure of the statue, which was bought by the Getty in 1977 and today is an icon of the museum’s collection, displayed in its own climate-controlled room at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.

In 1964, the Italian fishermen discovered the ancient bronze in international waters, the last surviving crew member told The Times in 2006. Instead of declaring their find to Italian customs officials, they buried it in a cabbage patch and sold it to middlemen, who hid it in a priest’s bathtub before it was smuggled out of the country. Two years later, three brothers and a priest were charged with buying the statue from the fishermen and concealing it. An appeals court threw out their convictions in 1970 because of insufficient evidence. At the time, the statue was still missing and its value was unknown.

J. Paul Getty learned about the sculpture in 1972 from his trusted antiquities advisor, Oxford archaeologist Bernard Ashmole. The statue had resurfaced in Europe under mysterious circumstances and was being sold by a Munich art dealer for $4 million.

Enamored of the bronze, Getty asked his Los Angeles attorney to obtain an opinion on its legal status. The attorney talked to the seller’s Italian lawyers, who insisted that Italy had no claim to the statue.

But a year later, as Getty considered acquiring the statue jointly with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he still had questions.

“It is clearly understood by us that no commitment is to be made by me on your behalf for the Greek Bronze until certain legal questions are clarified,” wrote Met director Thomas Hoving to Getty in a June 1973 letter. Hoving promised that the Met’s attorneys would talk with Italian officials to clarify the circumstances under which the statue had left Italy and whether the Italians were still pursuing a legal claim, records show.

The Met’s antiquities curator, Dietrich von Bothmer, raised legal concerns of his own, warning Hoving that the 1970 acquittal “does not permit the legal conclusion that the statue was . . . legally exported from Italy.”

In his acquisition proposal to the Met’s board, Von Bothmer wrote, “I recommend that legal opinions be solicited as to the possibility that a foreign government may at a later time, especially after publication of the statue, claim it as ‘artistic patrimony.’ ”

In June 1973, Getty and the Met offered $3.8 million for the statue, provided that the legal matters were resolved, but the deal fell apart. A Met spokesman this week would not comment on what, if anything, the legal review had concluded. Von Bothmer died last October. Hoving died in December.

In 1974, Italy asked German authorities to seize the statue and extradite the Munich dealer who had offered it to Getty. Germany refused to honor the judicial request.

Getty and his museum’s antiquities curator, Jiri Frel, resumed negotiations for the statue in 1976. In a letter that February, Getty’s advisor Ashmole mentioned the pursuit of the bronze to Stephen Garrett, the director of Getty’s Malibu museum.

Ashmole wrote that “The Plunderers,” a recent British television show, “came pretty near the bone” in depicting the Getty’s acquisition of suspect antiquities. But the museum “was treated so gently as to make [it] sound almost innocent by contrast with the other horror stories.”

The museum’s “exploits over the bronze statue were also given, but again in such a way as to minimize the crime.”

Ashmole died in 1988. In an interview, Garrett acknowledged that the reference was to the Getty Bronze but said he did not recall what “crime” Ashmole was referring to. At the time, he acknowledged, museums did not ask many questions about objects they suspected of having been illegally exported.

When Getty died in June 1976, his legal concerns died with him. The following year, the Getty Museum bought the statue for just under $4 million -- more than Getty himself had been willing to pay. Rather than check with Italian authorities as Getty had required, museum officials simply confirmed that the legal opinion provided by the dealer’s lawyers in 1972 was still valid, records show.

Even so, the statue was named in honor of the museum’s founder: The Getty Bronze.

Local pride

The community of Fano, where the fisherman brought the statue ashore in the 1960s, calls the bronze by another name: The Athlete of Fano. A life-size bronze replica stands at the entrance to its port.

For decades, the town has pined for the statue’s return. A complaint from a community group spurred the public prosecutor to file the current case.

Experts say the case does not fit neatly into the legal framework that has emerged for resolving disputes over looted antiquities: The statue was found by accident in international waters, not by looters ransacking an ancient tomb. And even if the judge ordered the seizure of the statue, Italy would still have to get the ruling enforced in the United States -- a potentially difficult process.

But the residents of Fano saw a ray of hope in June when the judge ruled that the statue was part of Italy’s cultural patrimony, despite the short time it spent in the country.

And it may be hard, given its founder’s legal concerns, for the Getty to persuade an Italian judge that the museum conducted the proper due diligence before buying the statue.

“Instead of clearing it with Italian authorities,” said Patty Gerstenblith, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago, “they went to the one party that was sure to give them the answer they wanted.”