An Italian judge Monday rejected the request of a local cultural group to seize an ancient bronze from the J. Paul Getty Museum, further increasing the chances that the prized statue will stay in Los Angeles.
The Getty Bronze, a 4th century BC statue of a young athlete, has been fought over since Italian fishermen discovered it in international waters in 1964.
Most recently, it was a sticking point in the heated negotiations between Italy and the Getty over dozens of the museum's antiquities, which Italy claimed had been looted and illegally exported.
The Getty agreed to return 40 contested objects in August, but only after both sides agreed to put off deciding the bronze's fate until after a judge ruled on the request for its seizure and a new investigation.
The legal action was initiated by a cultural group in the town of Fano, where the statue was taken after local fishermen hauled it from the Adriatic Sea.
News of the decision was reported by an Italian wire service and confirmed by a local official, but the judge's written order had not been issued by the court as of Monday evening.
The ruling bolsters the Getty's longtime claim that Italy has no grounds for requesting the bronze's return.
"We've always said the Getty's ownership of the bronze is unassailable," said Luis Li, the museum's outside attorney on the antiquities issue.
In a statement, Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said he would await more detail about the ruling before commenting. He has insisted in the past that the Getty should return the statue on moral grounds because it was smuggled out of Italy before the museum bought it.
The cultural group that requested the seizure, Cento Citta, said it planned to appeal Monday's ruling to a higher court, according to Italian news reports.
Members have previously conceded that their legal action was unlikely to result in the bronze being returned, in part because of legal ambiguities surrounding its discovery and sale.
The statue was not excavated from an archaeological site but found by chance in international waters. Experts say it was not even crafted in Italy but was made by Greek artists and lost in the Adriatic after being looted by Roman soldiers.
After the Fano fishermen found the statue, they brought it ashore and hid it from authorities in a cabbage field. They sold it for a few thousand dollars to local art dealers, who moved it to the house of a local priest for safekeeping.
The statue was smuggled out of Italy and resurfaced in the early 1970s in London, where oilman J. Paul Getty fell in love with the delicate figure. But after years of haggling he refused to buy it, in part because of his concerns about its legal status.
Soon after his death, the Getty Museum bought the statue for nearly $10 million. As one of the few Greek bronzes to survive the ages, it became a signature of the collection. Today it is displayed in a special humidity-controlled room at the Getty Villa, near Malibu.
It was only when the people of Fano learned through news reports of the statue's value and importance that they sought to get it back.
In the years since, the statue has come to represent a sense of lost identity to the people of Fano, who have built a life-size replica of it until the original is returned.
Given that complex history, some experts say Italy overreached in demanding that the statue be returned. Italian officials say their request is justified, pointing to signs that museum officials knew the piece was illegally exported when they bought it.
Monday's decision was a further blow to Italy's efforts. But some Fano residents, including local politician Giancarlo D'Anna, were undaunted.
"We have to continue our battle to gain back the statue," D'Anna said Monday. "It's a moral battle. Sooner or later the statue will be back, of that I'm sure."
Special correspondent Ralph Frammolino in Rome contributed to this report.