Getty Museum told to hand over famed ancient Greek statue by Italian supreme court

Italy’s highest court has ordered the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to return an ancient Greek bronze statue that was found off the Adriatic coast of Italy by fishermen in 1964.

The ruling by the Court of Cassation in Rome is the latest round in a decade-long, acrimonious dispute between the museum and Italy over the ownership of the exquisite bronze figure, known as Victorious Youth or the Getty Bronze.

The Getty Museum immediately rejected the judgment, saying it had no intention of giving up the fourth century BC statue, believed to have been cast by a Greek sculptor named Lysippus.

The court in Rome upheld the ruling of a lower court in Pesaro in the Marche region of central Italy, where the statue was found more than 50 years ago.

It is thought that a Roman ship was bringing the bronze from Greece to Italy when it sank, plunging it to the bottom of the sea.

“We now hope that the US authorities will act as soon as possible to favour the restitution of the statue to Italy,” said Alberto Bonisoli, Italy’s culture minister.

“This judicial process has finally ended and the right to recover an extremely important testimony of our heritage has been recognised. Let’s hope the statue can soon return to be admired in our museums.”

Italy and the Getty Museum have been at odds over the bronze masterpiece ever since the museum bought it in 1977 for $3.95 million from a German art dealer. 

The Italian authorities maintain that the statue was illegally taken out of the country without an export license.   

Tristano Tonnini, a lawyer who has been working on the case for more than a decade, said “the museum always knew that it was buying a smuggled and illegally exported artifact.”

Rome maintains that the statue was found in Italian waters and therefore belongs to the Italian State.

But the Getty dismissed the court ruling and said it would continue to defend its “legal right” to the statue, which is on display in the Getty Villa, part of the Getty Museum.

“The law and facts in this case do not warrant restitution to the Italian government of a statue that has been on public display in Los Angeles for nearly a half century,” the museum said in a statement.

The Getty insisted the statue was found in international waters and so had only a “fleeting and incidental connection” with Italy.

“The statue is not and has never been part of Italy’s cultural heritage. Accidental discovery by Italian citizens does not make the statue an Italian object. We believe any forfeiture order is contrary to American and international law.”