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A twist in Getty Museum's Italian court saga

Documents show that billionaire J. Paul Getty had legal concerns about a statue that his museum ended up purchasing after his death. It became known as the Getty Bronze.

January 14, 2010|By Jason Felch

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.

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