In August 1964, an Italian flagged fishing vessel from Fano, Italy, was out dragging nets in the Adriatic Sea. At one point in this journey the fisherman hauled up something much more significant than fish. When the nets were pulled up there was what appeared to be a shell-encrusted man and the fishermen were startled at the sight of it. The captain of the vessel chipped at the figure and heard a metal sound, reassuring the frightened crew members that it was not a dead body. It was, it turns out, an exquisite ancient Greek bronze statue known as the Lysippos of Fano (and in California it is known by its aliases, the Getty Bronze and the Victorious Athlete).
Lysippos, a sculptor from the 4th century BC., is considered one of the most important artists of the Classical Era and was the favorite artist of Alexander the Great. This find is important due to the rarity of Lysippos’ artworks in existence, not one of his works has been confirmed. We know what his work looked like because Roman artists made many copies, such as the Horses in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Many experts are convinced that the Lysippos of Fano is an authentic Lysippos.
There was a legal obligation to report any antiquity found at sea by a vessel flying an Italian flag to customs officials as soon as that object entered Italian territory, but they chose instead, to smuggle the statue onto Italian soil.
With willful intent, they snuck the bronze into Fano and sold it to an antiquarian who, with the help of a Catholic priest, hid it in a church in Gubbio. The statue was trafficked out of Italy and was eventually sold for $700,000 to a German antiquities dealer, Heinz Herzer, who did an efficient restoration.
Italian investigators first received a tip about the statue in 1965 and started investigating. Over the years that followed, there were numerous court cases, properties raided, and indictments. They arrested the antiquarian who sold the statue, two of his accomplices, and the priest from Gubbio. They were charged, but eventually acquitted, due to lack of evidence.
The authorities had never seen the statue and even after the defendants confessed in court that they bought and sold the bronze to another art dealer in Milan, the court threw out the cases because there still wasn’t a stolen statue to examine. They didn’t even have photos of the piece so there was no evidence of a crime having been committed.
John Paul Getty took an interest in the statue in 1972 but he demanded to receive documents assuring the piece had a clean provenance. Getty lawyers knew all the defendants were absolved and the Italian Courts did not feel Italy had a claim to the statue. However, they could not provide J.P. Getty with a license of export from Italian customs. Again, this artwork was smuggled into Italy then subsequently smuggled out of Italy without fulfilling the legal obligations of notifying the customs officials.
Getty wanted an undisputed title of property and a Getty Museum lawyer and trustee convinced him that the court acquittals favored the purchase and that the Italians had no legal claim to the bronze. J.P. Getty died in June 1976, and the Getty Museum purchased the bronze for $3.95 million in August 1977 in London without receiving the supporting documents that J.P. Getty desired. The statue has been on exhibit in the Getty Villa in California since 1978.
The statue was bought legally from the UK and transported legally to its current home in the Getty Villa. However, laws in Italy were broken when it was removed from there, such as law # 1089-1939. which dictates that the fishermen were not owners, and the State was the sole proprietor. The Lysippos could never be documented and catalogued, and a clean license of export was never issued. This explains why the numerous court cases failed to produce convictions that stuck. But in 1977, with the purchase of the Lysippos by the Getty, Italian authorities had a statue to examine and a photo of it from before it was restored surfaced as well and Italian lawyers went back to work.
In 2005, Marion True, a former curator for the Getty Museum, was indicted by an Italian court for conspiracy to traffic in looted Italian antiquities. True was implicated in an international antiquity smuggling ring that moved Italian antiquities and falsified provenances for them. In 2007, in a move of cultural diplomacy, Italy dropped the charges against True, and the Getty Museum agreed to return 40 cultural pieces to Italy, but refused to return the Lysippos.
After 2007, many more objects were returned by the Getty right, to present time. In Sept. 2022, Matthew Bogdanos, of the Manhattan D.A.’s Office, presented the Getty with indisputable evidence that three terracotta statues from 4th century BC they bought in 1976 were looted from Puglia and the Getty swiftly repatriated these items.
The Museum’s lawyers continue to insist that the statue was purchased in good faith and point to the Italian courts’ failures to convict the defendants in past court proceedings. The Getty states that the statue is not Italian patrimony and is of Greek origin and they claim it was fished out of international waters.
More recently, three different Italian judges ruled that the statue was the property of Italy and must be returned. The Getty appealed these decisions to Italy’s Court of Cassation (Supreme Court). On December 3, 2018, the Court of Cassation upheld and reaffirmed the Lysippos must be returned. The Getty is refusing to respect the Italian courts and the Italian constitution and is still refusing to return the statue.
In our next article on this topic, the second out of three, we will hear from the Mayor of Fano, Massimo Seri and Avv. Tristano Tonnini, who have fought to repatriate the statue, and Stefano Alessandrini, a patrimony expert and author of Italian Cultural Diplomacy for the Return of Cultural Heritage in Exile who will give us his views.