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Italy Widens Demands, Snarling Talks With Getty

Rome increases to 85 the number of antiquities it wants back; hopes for an imminent deal vanish.

June 21, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Italian negotiators greatly expanded the number of antiquities they want back from the J. Paul Getty Trust, as two days of tense talks here ended without agreement.

Both sides said they had failed to reach agreement in nearly 12 hours of negotiations that began Monday, and additional dialogue expected today would be of a narrower scope, focusing on technical matters.

Getty representatives were keen to reach an accord on 52 valuable statues, vases and other antiquities that Italy maintains were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country. Many are on display at the newly restored Getty Villa in Malibu. Getty trustees authorized their lawyers to offer Italy 21 items.

But instead of an agreement, the Italians made a new demand. In addition to the 52 objects, Italy wants 33 other antiquities to be returned, said Italian lead negotiator Maurizio Fiorilli, a state attorney. The Italian officials said they reserved the right to expand their list.

With the two sides clearly at an impasse, Getty representatives abandoned the Italian Culture Ministry, where the negotiations took place, limiting themselves to brief comments. Overall, the mood at the ministry was subdued, as hope for an early deal faded.

Lead attorney Ronald Olson, who had spoken in upbeat terms a day earlier, said only, "We've had very pleasant conversations about Rome and Los Angeles weather."

The second day of talks began Tuesday afternoon and dragged on late into the night. At the conclusion, and after the Getty lawyers had departed, the Italians issued a unilateral statement.

"A final agreement is being developed with a view to resolving claims to all disputed objects," said the statement, which Fiorilli read to a small group of reporters.

The agreement will be aimed at "defining a future relationship premised on respect for Italy's cultural and legal rights, scholarly and public access to great works of art and shared conservation efforts," he said.

He said technical negotiations would begin today and continue through the summer, and that he hoped to reach an agreement by Sept. 1.

Fiorilli did not describe the additional 33 antiquities but said Getty had obtained them through the same network of unscrupulous art dealers who supplied the original 52 items, which include some of the Getty's most prized treasures. Two of those dealers are co-defendants with the Getty's former antiquities curator, Marion True, who is on trial in Rome on smuggling-conspiracy charges.

The additional 33 objects are part of the criminal complaint, Fiorilli said. He added that the Getty attorneys were surprised at the new demand and that it had darkened the atmosphere of the talks.

Other participants said a recent report in the Los Angeles Times that Getty officials had identified another 350 items as having questionable provenance also weighed heavily in the two days of talks, introducing an element of mistrust on the part of the Italians.

Olson did not return phone calls seeking further comment, although he earlier confirmed that additional meetings would take place today.

In Los Angeles, Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig said, "It was a day of tough negotiation, but the spirit of goodwill that characterized [Monday's] discussion continued.

"We're continuing to look forward to progress, recognizing that's going to require compromises by everyone. And given the fact that we're now in the middle of the negotiations, we have nothing more to report."

Getty Museum Director Michael Brand participated in Monday's session but traveled on business to Thailand, leaving Olson and his team of attorneys to do the negotiating Tuesday.

Fiorilli said that though the Italians and the Americans discussed several of the disputed items in great detail, including what was known about their history and discovery, the Getty representatives never made a concrete offer.

He said the number of objects Italy ultimately demands from the Getty is less important than the broader attitude toward archeological finds and the conservation of cultural patrimony.

"If we want to close these negotiations, it is not a question of numbers [of items] but of a cultural agreement that limits the clandestine trafficking of archeological materials," Fiorilli said.

Although the negotiations are part of a broader effort by Italy to retrieve antiquities from museums worldwide, the stakes for the Getty are high. The number of objects in dispute is proportionally greater for the Getty than for other museums, because the Getty acquired much of its collection more recently, as laws and public opinion on the trade of antiquities had begun to change.

The 52 disputed items, valued at more than $48 million, include pieces on prominent display at the Getty Villa: a marble and limestone statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, an exquisite sculpture of two mythic griffins, and a 2,600-year-old cup made by the Greek artist Euphronios.

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Times staff writer Ralph Frammolino in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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