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The Amazing Catch They Let Slip Away

The Greek bronze now at the Getty Villa has a potent allure. Just ask the Italian fishermen who hauled it up in 1964 and sold it for $5,600.

May 11, 2006|Jason Felch | Times Staff Writer

FANO, Italy — On a summer day in 1964, the 60-foot trawler Ferruccio Ferri pushed off from this port before dawn. It motored southeast, cutting through the Adriatic Sea toward a submerged outcropping where fish gathered, 32 nautical miles out.

By dusk, the Ferri had reached the spot. The seven men in the crew cast their nets and fished all night, dozing in shifts.

Early the next morning, the nets caught on a snag. The boat's engine whined. With a jolt, the nets came free. Crewman Igli Rosato watched as a barnacle-encrusted figure emerged from the sea.

"C'e un morto!" cried one of the fishermen, Rosato recalled. "There's a dead man!"

But the figure discernible through the layer of shells was too rigid and heavy to be a man. The fishermen dragged the clunky object to the front of the boat and returned to their chores. Later, when they stopped for a breakfast of roasted fish, one of them scraped a patch of barnacles off the figure and let out a yelp.

"E d'oro!" he cried, pointing at the flash of brilliant yellow underneath the shell. "It's gold!"

Romeo Pirani, the captain of the boat, pushed through the men and examined the exposed metal where the figure's feet should have been, Rosato recalled.

Bronze, not gold, the captain declared.

The Ferri's crew occasionally pulled up Roman urns in their nets but had never seen anything quite like this.

The life-size figure had one hand raised to its head. It had black holes for eyes. Given the thickness of its encrustations, it looked as if it had been on the ocean floor for centuries. It might be worth something.

The crew made a quick decision: Rather than turn the statue over to authorities, as required by Italian law, they would sell it and divvy up the profit.

After the Ferri docked in the predawn darkness at Fano, the crew took the statue ashore on a fish cart, hidden under a pile of nets.

The bronze spent a few days in the house of the trawler's owner, but rumors of its existence started to spread through town, Rosato recalled.

Worried that a jealous neighbor would tell Italy's financial police, the owner's son took the 280-pound statue to a farming village three kilometers inland, where it was buried in a cabbage field.

With the statue safely hidden, the fishermen contacted the Barbetti brothers, Giacomo and Fabio, whose family owned a cement factory in nearby Gubbio. They were antiquarians who occasionally bought ancient objects turned up by farmers or fishermen and sold them to wealthy foreigners.

When Giacomo Barbetti saw the statue in the cabbage field, he suspected it was a major find. Touching the figure's nose, he thought it might even be the work of Lysippos, one of the greatest sculptors of ancient Greece.

The Barbettis bought it for 4 million lire, about $5,600 at the time and about $36,000 today. The amount was divided among the two dozen or so people who by then had become involved in the statue's journey.

"Three to four million lire, it was a huge amount," Rosato recalled. "People started sweating when they heard that amount."

As the youngest man aboard the Ferri, Rosato got about $130. He had hoped to use the money to take a short vacation, but when he returned home from his next voyage, he learned that his mother had used it to pay their debts at the grocery store.

The sale to the Barbettis began the modern odyssey of one of the greatest bronze statues to survive from ancient Greece.

It is a journey like that taken by thousands of ancient objects, spirited across borders and through an often-obscure trail of owners before reaching a new home. In the case of the statue, that would be a humidity-controlled room at the newly reopened Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.

The bronze proved more slippery than most as it passed through a net of international laws intended to govern the trade in ancient artifacts. Because it was found in international waters, Italy does not have the same ownership claim as it would over a vase or statue found in Italian soil. Nevertheless, Italians say, the statue was illegally exported and should be returned.

The dispute, now playing out in negotiations between the Getty and Italian officials, brings to the surface some of the deeper issues in the debate about who should be the rightful owner of objects from cultures long dead. After all, to whom does a statue made in ancient Greece, stolen by Romans and found by Italian fishermen 2,000 years later, rightfully belong?

International law generally recognizes as owner the country where an antiquity is discovered in modern times, not where it was created. Greece has not claimed the object, and Italian officials say cultural justice demands repatriation to the country whose citizens found it and brought it home.

Critics of such claims -- American museums and private collectors among them -- cite their own sense of justice, saying that objects of such importance and rarity should belong to humanity, not one nation.

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