Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Where do Artifacts Belong?

Italy is at it again. This time their target is the famous 'Victorious Youth,' currently located at the Getty Villa in California. The statue is exceptional in the fact that it is bronze and Greek, a very rare combination in surviving ancient art. Italy's case is this: the statue was fished out of the sea near Fano, Italy in 1964 and subsequently illegally smuggled out of the country, later to be purchased by the Getty. The Getty's version is the same, minus the 'illegally smuggled' part. I'm sure both sides have what they believe to be concrete evidence supporting their case and it's going to be difficult to determine who acted in good faith and who didn't. The Getty's track record regarding stolen antiquities is certainly tarnished, but the Italians may also be accused of trying to drain other countries of antiquities for their own political purposes.

Does it matter that the 'Victorious Youth' may be stolen? Of course it does. Looting archaeological sites for objet d'art is not only illegal, but it irreversibly damages the archaeological record and prevents us from learning more about the past. Ancient art is concerned with far more than just aesthetics. Examining ancient art in context can tell us a great deal about the ancient world as a whole. So, if the 'Victorious Youth' was stolen, then what? Should it be returned to Italy or left in California? These are hard questions to answer but there are several things to take into consideration. First, who has the right to 'own' our cultural heritage and does it matter who owns it? Just because the current Italian state resides on the same land that the Romans did doesn't necessarily make them cultural heirs. The Roman Empire was huge, covering land from Scotland to Iraq. So who gets to claim they are the cultural heirs of Rome? Also, this is a Greek statue we're talking about, one that was probably stolen by the Romans. Does Greece have a claim to this statue then? The important issue here is the study of the statue and its treatment. If Italy had the statue, would it be as well cared for and studied as it has been at the Getty? I don't see why the Getty can't admit wrongdoing (if that was the case) yet still keep the statue. If Italy was actually concerned with the welfare of the statue, they should be happy that it has been so well cared for.
The 'Victorious Youth' is seen by tens of thousands of tourists a year, exposing them to ancient art and culture. Ancient artifacts are meant to be studied, appreciated and shared. What would Italy, especially Fano, do with it? Political bickering and scholarship don't make good bedfellows. Italy may posture all it wants, but what is really at stake here is something beyond national pride. What Italy and other countries should be doing is focusing their efforts on illegal looting and smuggling that's happening right now. Museums across the world have put in place strict guidelines regarding the purchase of antiquities to help stem looting. Punishing institutions for what they did in the past, under leadership that's long gone, is not the way to fix the problem. A mass exodus of antiquities from world museums is also not the answer. Did the Getty buy stolen goods? In the case of the 'Victorious Youth,' perhaps and in other cases most definitely. The question of who owns such artifacts is debatable and I'm not prepared to answer it. What I do know is that scholarship should have no national boundaries and that Italy's demand that the 'Victorious Youth' be given to them is not productive.


MalcolmJ said...

Hi Mike,

Interesting post. The subject of artefact repatriation is something we're touching on right now over at with round three of our Ancient World in London Bloggers Challenge.

We're asking bloggers to share their thoughts on a contentious subject - should the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt? It'd be great to hear the Cultivated Classicist's view on this very divisive matter!

All you need to do is state your case in a blog, and then link back to my HK blog here:

The prize if you win is five books of your choice from the current Thames & Hudson catalogue. You'll also enter the running for the grand prize of a holiday in Turkey!

Hopefully see a blog from you soon!