Getty Museum Returns Italian Antiquities

The Getty Museum agrees to return 26 objects from its antiquities collection to Italy. The museum has been involved in a legal battle with the Italian Ministry of Culture. Former Getty curator Marion True was charged with knowingly trafficking in artifacts looted from archaeological sites. Elizabeth Blair reports.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. The feud between Italy and one of the most prestigious American museums has taken a new turn. Yesterday, the Getty Museum here in Los Angeles announced it will return 26 antiquities that museum officials believe were removed from Italy illegally.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Among the objects the Getty is returning to Italy are an almost 5-foot Roman statue of Apollo and an elaborate marble piece in the shape of two mythological griffins attacking a fallen doe.

Mr. MICHAEL BRAND (Director, Getty Museum): In the 26 objects we're returning there are some absolute extraordinary works of art there.

BLAIR: Michael Brand is the director of the Getty Museum. He says that as a result of meetings with the Italian Ministry of Culture over the past year, the Getty believed the return would lead to a more reciprocal relationship. But those talks failed.

Mr. BRAND: It was agreed that when the 26 objects went back there would be a number of long term loans in return and also collaboration on a number of projects. It would seem that that's not going to happen. But, since we've done our research and we believe those 26 objects should go back - which is why we signed the agreement October the 5th - I believe it's the correct thing to do to send them back.

BLAIR: But there are still more than 20 artifacts the Italians want returned from the Getty, including a limestone statue of a goddess thought to be Aphrodite and a bronze statue of a victorious youth, often referred to as the Getty Bronze. Michael Brand says they are still researching the origins of the goddess, but that the Italians have no legal claim over the Bronze.

Mr. BRAND: We believe we have clear title. You know, it's had a long history. It was found in international waters. And even during the year, the Italians on a number of occasions admitted to us that they had no legal title, no legal claim to the object.

BLAIR: Earlier this year, two other institutions - Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art - returned objects to Italy. In both of those cases, the Italians agreed to future loans and other collaborations. The Getty hasn't been able to come to a similar accord. Not helping matters, one of its curators, Marion True, is currently on trial in Rome for trafficking in stolen art.

Maxwell Anderson is head of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and a former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. He believes of all the museums with questionable antiquities the Getty has been singled out.

Mr. MAXWELL ANDERSON (Indianapolis Museum of Art): I suppose the Getty makes a convenient foil by virtue of its extraordinary wealth and the fact that it has a past - in the 1970s and early ‘80s - of behaving with less than exemplary standards. But, I think that all changed, ironically, under Marion True's tenure as curator and under John Walsh as director.

And Michael Brand is simply trying, I think, to move the ball down the line to a kind of reciprocal approach of understanding that the past practices of the museum were not on par with what's expected today.

BLAIR: Italian officials have issued a statement saying they are surprised and disappointed by the Getty's announcement and are analyzing it carefully. Italian Cultural Minister, Francesco Rutelli, recently told the Times of London that they have tried for six months to get the 52 artifacts returned. If they still haven't understood it, he said, I'm afraid the process of conciliation will end and a serious conflict will begin.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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