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The Fano athlete: new revelations

In January 2009 there were still comments in the Italian press suggesting a desire for the return of the bronze 'Fano athlete' from the J. Paul Getty Museum. Italy renewed its claims in January 2008 just as the Sarpedon krater was returning to Rome, and it was being announced that Shelby White would be handing over part of her collection. Maurizio Fiorelli, the Italian state prosecutor, still had the athlete on his agenda when he was interviewed for the Sunday Telegraph in August 2008. Michael Brand, director of the Getty, had made his position on the Fano athlete clear stating that he was uninterested in objects that had left their country of origin prior to 1970.

I have reviewed the 'collecting history' before. The statue appears to have been found in the sea by fishermen from Fano; it seems likely this happened in August 1964. It then apparently passed through Gubbio before being handled by Elie Borowski in Switzerland, and sold to the Artemis Consortium.

In March 2008 I wrote:
My hunch is that Rutelli will not be revisiting any of the above collections (with the possible exception of the J. Paul Getty Museum for the Fano athlete) unless there are new and spectacular revelations. He has negotiated and agreements have been reached.
It now appears that there are indeed new revelations. In today's LA Times, Jason Felch has revealed some new documents ("A twist in Getty Museum's Italian court saga", LA Times January 14, 2010). Dietrich von Bothmer and Thomas Hoving, both of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, commented on the possibility of acquiring the statue jointly with the Getty.

Thomas Hoving, the Director of the MMA, wrote to J. Paul Getty on June 26, 1973. 
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.
These included the confirmation of title and "the circumstances regarding its [i.e. the athlete] leaving Italy".

Felch continues:
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.

In an internal MMA memo (June 19, 1973) Dietrich von Bothmer, curator of Greek and Roman art, noted:
I recommend that legal opinions be solicited as to the possibility that a foreign government may at a later time, especially after publication of the statue, claim it as "artistic patrimony".
Bothmer had earlier briefed Hoving in a memo of January 31, 1973, and pointed out that the dismissal of the case in Italy "does not permit the legal conclusion that the statue was . . . legally exported from Italy."


Hoving's correspondence of July 3, 1973 also make it clear that J. Paul Getty did not want to acquire the statue unless the legal points were clarified.

Felch notes:
When Getty died in June 1976, his legal concerns died with him. The following year, the Getty Museum bought the statue for just under $4 million -- more than Getty himself had been willing to pay. Rather than check with Italian authorities as Getty had required, museum officials simply confirmed that the legal opinion provided by the dealer's lawyers in 1972 was still valid, records show.
One thing that the series of returns to Italy and Greece has taught us is that it is important for museums to carry out due diligence before making acquisitions. And the new documentation seems to suggest that the Getty chose not to ask key questions before the Fano athlete was purchased (in spite of J. Paul Getty's personal concerns).


Felch continues:

And it may be hard, given its founder's legal concerns, for the Getty to persuade an Italian judge that the museum conducted the proper due diligence before buying the statue.

"Instead of clearing it with Italian authorities," said Patty Gerstenblith, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago, "they went to the one party that was sure to give them the answer they wanted."
It now looks as if Italy's claim for the statue has been strengthened.



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David Gill said…
A correction has been published here.

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