An Italian judge ordered the seizure Thursday of the J. Paul Getty Museum's iconic bronze statue of an athlete, citing "grave negligence" in the museum's acquisition of the ancient statue in 1977.
The ruling marks the first time an Italian court has demanded the return of the statue, which for decades has been the subject of heated debate between the museum and Italy's culture ministry, which claims the statue was illegally exported from Italy.
The Getty vowed Thursday to appeal the ruling to Italy's highest court, noting that previous Italian courts have thrown out Italy's demand for the statue, which was found in international waters in 1964 and later smuggled out of the country.
"The court's ruling is flawed both procedurally and substantively," the museum said in a prepared statement, saying it would "vigorously defend its ownership of the statue."
But former Italian culture minister Francesco Rutelli hailed the "historic importance" of Thursday's ruling, saying in a statement that it marked the end of "the long season of sacking Italy's cultural patrimony."
As The Times reported last month, documents show the Getty bought the statue despite the legal concerns of the museum's founder, who insisted its purchase be cleared with Italian authorities before he died in 1976.
If Thursday's ruling is upheld, Italy will have to convince a U.S. court to enforce the seizure order, but doing so may prove difficult, legal experts said, because many of the complex legal issues involved are uncharted territory in American law. But Italy may choose to use Thursday's ruling to reopen negotiations with the Getty, which vowed in 2007 to resolve future disputes outside the courtroom.
That year, the museum signed an agreement with Rutelli agreeing to return 40 of the museum's most prized pieces of ancient art, conceding they had been illegally excavated or exported from Italy. Negotiations over the bronze statue were postponed pending the outcome of the legal case.
In her 37-page ruling, Judge Lorena Mussoni recounted the long journey of the statue, which experts believe was created in Greece between the 2nd and 4th century BC, perhaps by Lysippos, the personal sculptor for Alexander the Great.
The statue, one of the few complete Greek bronzes to survive, was likely lost at sea after being taken by Roman soldiers around the time of Christ. (The government of Greece has never asked that the statue be returned there.)
In 1964, Italian fishermen from the village of Fano hauled up the barnacle-encrusted statue in their nets while trawling in international waters of the Adriatic Sea. Rather than declare it to Italian customs authorities, they buried it in a cabbage patch and sold it to middlemen, who hid it in a local 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 the conviction in 1970, ruling there was insufficient evidence. At the time, the statue was missing and its value was unknown.
In 1972, billionaire oilman J. Paul Getty learned about the statue, which had resurfaced in Europe under mysterious circumstances and was being sold by a Munich art dealer for $4 million. Aware of the earlier legal case, Getty insisted Italy approve of the purchase before the deal was finalized, records show.
Officials at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which was also pursuing the bronze, also expressed legal concerns. In a memo to the Met's director, antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer warned that Italy could still make a legal claim for the statue, records show.
When Getty died in 1976, his legal conditions went to the grave with him.
A year later, the Getty Museum bought the statue for just under $4 million. Rather than check with Italian authorities, museum officials sought a legal opinion from the seller's Italian attorneys, who argued Italy did not have legal title to the statue.
The statue, formally known as "Victorious Youth," was dubbed the Getty Bronze in honor of the museum's founder.
The Getty's lawyers argued that the 1970 ruling and the legal opinion sought from the seller's attorneys show the museum was acting in good faith and that there were no legal problems with the acquisition.
In her ruling Thursday, Mussoni cited J. Paul Getty's ignored legal conditions in finding that the museum had not acted in good faith.
"This behavior of the Getty Museum, in contrast with that of J. Paul Getty, contradicts the good faith of the [Getty] Trust," Mussoni wrote. The museum "bought this bronze despite knowledge of the risks of an illegal acquisition."
The ruling was celebrated in the streets of Fano, where residents have been longing for the statue's return ever since learning of the significance of the object their fishermen sold for a few thousand dollars.
"This is a big victory for us," said Giancarlo D'Anna, a local politician who has led the crusade for the statue's return and held demonstrations outside the courtroom in nearby Pesaro. "Most people didn't think it would come out this way."
Thursday's decision is unlikely to have an effect on the ongoing criminal trial of the Getty's former antiquities curator Marion True, who denies charges of trafficking in looted antiquities. The bronze was acquired long before she joined the Getty Museum.