A rare 2,000-year-old, life-size bronze statue, known as Victorious Youth, has been a popular exhibit at the Getty since 1977 when the museum purchased it for nearly $4 million. But now the New York Times reports a ruling from Italy's supreme court that the sale was illegal because the statue was discovered in Italian waters off the Asiatic coast by an Italian fisherman, which makes it an Italian property. As Silvia Cecchi, prosecutor for the case, put it, “The sculptor was Greek, but the statue was culturally and administratively Italian when it sank.”

In contention

Disputing the ruling, Lisa Lapin, vice-president for communications at the Getty Trust, said in a statement cited by the New YorkTimes, “The grounds for the decision is inconsistent with its holding 50 years ago that there was no evidence of Italian ownership.

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In 1960, the same court decided in Getty's favor, ruling that there's no evidence that shows the statue belongs to Italy. “Accidental discovery by Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object,” Lapin said, adding that the Italian connection is “only a fleeting and incidental connection.” According to the Guardian, Getty bought the bronze work from German art dealer Herman Heinz Herzer in 1977, who bought it from the fisherman for $5, 600.

Greek Victorious Youth Athlete (3) - Getty Villa Collection [Image source: Flickr. Photographer Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup]
Greek Victorious Youth Athlete (3) - Getty Villa Collection [Image source: Flickr. Photographer Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup]

Court of public opinion

One may wonder why the government of Italy is so intent on getting a Greek statue to its shores. An answer may lie in a separate story about repatriating an artwork reported by CNN in 2010. That was when Rome demanded that the city of Florence give Rome the statue of “David” which Michelangelo, a Florentine, had carved for his hometown. Rome claimed ownership because it paid for the statue to be moved from its original outdoor location at Florence's Palazzo Vecchio indoors to L'Accademia to avoid weather damage.

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Eugenio Giani, president of the Florence City Council, argued that his city commissioned and funded the sculpture and that it stood at the Palazzo Vecchio for some four centuries until moved in 1873 to L'Accademia – also in Florence. Therefore, no other Italian city can claim it, he said.

Follow the money

Isn't the real reason for the government of Italy to want these treasures for itself for the revenue they generate? After all, Florence reaps a reported 8 million euros annually from ticket sales to see David, according to the Guardian.

And to hear the L.A. Times tell it, Victorious Youth is one of the L.A. museum's biggest attraction. Dated between 300 and 100 B.C., the Getty website says “it's one the few life-size Greek bronzes to have survived.” Is it any wonder, then, that Italy is calling for it? And isn't that the same reason the British Museum refuses to return the Parthenon marbles looted by one of its citizens, because of the money its display earns? An old adage comes to mind: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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