Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Getty Classical Statue Update: Italy Wins, Athlete of Fano Must Be Returned


Lysippos, Victorious Youth or Athleta di Fano, c. 300-100 BC
Getty Museum

Back in the news - Italy won its case against the Getty Museum:The Athlete of Fano/Victorious Youth  will go back home.  Here is the scoop on

Back in 2011 I covered the story in Fano, part of Le Marche in Italy, for  

Unknown                                                   The sculpture before it was cleaned
Greek, 300 - 100 B.C.
59 5/8 x 27 9/16 x 11 in.

In 1964, on a typical summer day of commercial fishing halfway between the coast of Fano, the ancient Roman city Fanum Fortunae (Temple of Fortune) in Italy, and the Croatian coast of the former Yugoslavia, the Ferrucio Ferri, a 60-foot Italian trawler, inexplicably hauled abroad a heavy human form in its fishing net. At first, the six-men crew thought they brought up a dead body. Then they scraped away some of the barnacles and realized this fishy figure was made of bronze.  Rather than report the mysterious treasure to the local authorities, Captain Romeo Pirani decided to keep this unexpected “catch” hush-hush and share with his crew the cash made from a secret sale of the object. To complete their plan, they waited until the wee hours of the next morning to sail back to port. Then, undercover of darkness, they spirited away a statue so densely covered with the crustaceans, they believed it had to be a very old work of art.

The captain took charge of the smelly bronze figure and stored it in his cousin’s garden. However, the stench from rotting fish became too powerful to bear. A few days later the statue was buried on a farm outside Fano, in a cabbage field. One month later, Giacomo Barbetti, a wealthy antiquarian from Gubbio (50 miles from Fano), looked at the bronze and identified it as a Lysippis. He offered the captain 3.5 million lira (about $4000 at the time).  Captain Pirani took about $1,200 (twice his monthly salary) as his cut for the sale.

Now Barbetti knowingly entered into an art crime by not reporting his possession of a cultural object found off the coast of Italy. (According to an Italian law set down in 1939, a work of art found on Italian territory must remain in Italy.)  

Nevertheless, this son of a concrete magnate kept the statue under wraps (literally) in red velvet, thanks to the help of Father Giovanni Nagni and his conveniently located sacristy, where the bronze was hidden. But the bronze, still encrusted with crustaceans, stank! So Father Nagni took it upon himself to drag the bronze to his home for a long salt-water soak in his bathtub. Meanwhile a passing parade of “guests” secretly visited the statue in Father Nagni’s house in Gubbio. One such “visitor,” a restorer, tipped off the local police, who staged a raid a few days later. By then Barbetti had caught wind of the informant’s deed and presto! the bronze magically disappeared.  How and in what form remains unknown. One theory is that Barbetti submerged the statue in cement and shipped it off to a monastery in Brazil. In 1966, the police convicted Barbetti and Father Nagni of criminal activity, placed them in jail and then two years later let them go, citing insufficient evidence to substantiate the charge.

By 1971, the bronze athlete had resurfaced in London and was sold to Artemis, an art consortium based in Luxembourg, for $700,000. Heinz Herzer, a German antiquarian, collected the statue and brought it to his studio for a thorough cleaning. Finally, the full beauty of the bronze figure was revealed, including the reddish rusting from the prolonged barnacle attachments. The bronze was treated to a chemical bath to arrest the further damage and then tested with Carbon-14 for dating. The results confirmed that work was executed sometime between 300-100 BC.  (Still vulnerable to rusting, the statue must be protected from high humility.)

The plot thickens . . .

Meanwhile, Dietrich von Bothmer, curator of antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose expertise was Greek vases, heard about the statue and informed his boss, Thomas Hoving, the director of the museum at this time. Hoving, who craved big-game art trophies, first licked his chops and then skittered out of the way – reluctant to enter into another questionable acquisition on behalf of the Met.  It was 1972 and Hoving had just purchased the infamous Euphronios vase for an unprecedented $1 million. The press was already breathing down his neck looking for dirt.

Four years later, on June 6, 1976, J. Paul Getty died, leaving $700 million to the GettyMuseum. Giddy with such largess and free of Getty’s stingy micromanaging scrutiny, the head curator, Burton Fredericksen immediately set his sites on the alleged Lysippis bronze that was still on the market. Fredericksen dreamed of transforming this underrated West Coast collection into top-drawer institution. An important late Hellenic bronze could make any lesser-known museum a star.

By November 1977, the newly-christened Getty Bronze entered the Getty collection, followed by a whole bunch of second-rate antiquities that curator Jiri Frel procured through “donations.” The story about Frel’s self-serving scheme of inflated appraisals that could be used for hefty tax deductions fills several pages in Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino’s sizzler Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, published in May 2011. The Victorious Youth makes a cameo appearance in the first chapter and again towards the end of this thriller when the Getty has to negotiate the return of numerous fenced objects. (My review  for Venice Magazine, July - August 2011, will be the next post.)

Twenty years . . . .
In 1997, Giacomo Medici, a well-known antiquities middleman associated with prominent collectors, was arrested by the Italian government for amassing an enormous amount of looted art in a Geneva warehouse.  Like Neal Caffrey, the suave and sophisticated art theft in the television series White Collar, Medici cut an elegant cosmopolitan figure. In 2004 he was found guilty by a Roman court and sentenced to a prison term of 10 years, which he is still serving.  He was also fined 10 million euros.

In May 2005, Marion True, curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum, found herself in a Roman courtroom answering to charges of receiving stolen goods and conspiring to export unlawful antiquities.  She stood trial with Robert E. Hecht, a shady supplier for the antiquities dealer Bruce McNall, who ran Summa Gallery on Rodeo Drive – the source for many Getty donors’ gifts (arranged by Jiri Frel).  The race for restitution was on – a highly competitive and diplomatically delicate sport.

By early 2006, Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visited Rome to negotiate a repatriation deal with the Italian authorities. The mutually-agreed on forfeiture sent 20 of the Met’s questionable acquisitions back to Italy, including Hoving’s celebrated “hotpot,” the Euphronios vase.  During this same period, the Getty’s newly-appointed director Michael Brand, followed suit but hit a snag.  Brand offered to return 26 items, plus the Morgantina sculpture of a goddess known as “Aphrodite.”  However, the Italian negotiators didn’t bite. They wanted the Victorious Youth, pronto.  Brand refused and walked away from the table to regroup, rethink and re-strategized the Getty position. By April 2007, an agreement was struck that required the return of 46 items from the Getty, plus the Morgantina “Aphrodite” -  but no Getty Bronze.

On February 13, 2010, the Italian courts ruled that the Victorious Youth must be repatriated to its shores. The Getty appealed the judgment. On May 3, 2012 the Italian court ruled once again that the statue must be returned to Italy, specifically Le Marche, probably Fano - although that part is not clear.

By October 2010, Marion True’s case drew to a close, dismissed from the Italian courts due to the expiration of the statue of limitations. Less than six months later, in March 2011, the Getty sent 46 antiquities to Italy, including the so-called “Aphrodite” sculpture which now belongs to Aidone, Sicily. (For the Italian government, the return of the antiquities seemed equal to an admission of guilt for collecting illicit antiquities.)

In March 2011, President Gian Mario Spacca of the Marche Region in Italy visited Los Angeles to offer a deal to “share” the Victorious Youth through extended loans.  "We are not here to declare war on the Getty," Spacca said in a statement to The LA Times. "We are here to resolve the dispute in a way that will benefit the museum, the people of Italy, and most important, art lovers around the world."

Italy is still waiting for the Getty's response.

*The Victorious Youth is known in Greek as an autostephanoumenos, a generic athlete acknowledging victory by pointing to a laurel wreath, which has, alas, disappeared.


Felch, Jason and Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Mattusch, Carol C. The Victorious Youth.   Los Angeles:  The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997.  

Catherine M. Keeling’s Review of Carol C. Mattusch’s The Victorious Youth,Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997.

 Then I updated the story on October 11, 2014:

And in the US., we have our looting meshugas in the form of Getty Museum's  Victorious Youth  or Athlete from Fano.  It's legitimate ownership is still in dispute.  That long yarn of ego and intrigue was featured in Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino's book Chasing Aphrodite and in a review of the book on my other blog Beth New York.

Do you think the new Clooney Power Couple can right a wrong that is already two centuries old? If this activist Monuments Man and his spouse can't do it, then who can?

Amal Alamuddin Clooney will meet with the Greek Ministers this week.
Updated October 16th - Negotiations in progress.

Posted on my old blog Beth New York June 11, 2012:

Review of Chasing Aphrodite: The Getty Mess Sparks a Summer Sizzler

And the original publication in Venice Magazine, July-August 2011:

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2011)

How would Gustave Flaubert update his Madame Bovary in 2011?  Perhaps, he would recast her as an ambitious art history student, eager to please and aching to get away from a boring working-class life just outside of Boston (Newburyport, to be precise).  Let’s say this updated Emma Bovary completes her degree at NYU and continues on to Harvard for a Ph.D. program but drops out when she meets an older, well-off cardiologist, looking for a trophy wife.

Now this contemporary Emma Bovary first seeks upward mobility through her marriage, just like her nineteenth-century counterpart, and spends far in excess of what her husband’s prenup lifestyle considered reasonable  – just like Flaubert’s Emma who hitched her wagon to a lowly country physician.  Dissatisfied and frustrated, our contemporary Madame Bovary takes $50,000 out of the join bank account to put a down-payment on her own condominium.  No suicide for this desperate housewife.  She got herself a Honda CVCC (surprisingly, not a Porsche) and rode out of the marriage into a heterosexually gay-divorcée sunlight.

Then what?
She found a job in commercial gallery, an unsavory choice for a Harvard ABD (all but dissertation).  That situation proved to be a Ponzi scheme of sorts, so she moved on to the ivory-tower ethos of museums, setting her cap for a numero uno spot in the food-chain of non-academic art historians: head curator (directors, these days, are just glorified fund-raisers). Finally at the top of a major museum, she became a player in the questionable practices that collecting antiquities have to offer. 

Oh, Madame Bovary in late-capitalist America, what a mess you made because of your blind ambition. (Got yourself a nice little “cottage” in the Greek isles, though, just to feel part of the authentically wealthy society you always coveted.  Well, on a curator’s salary that’s a bit of stretch beyond financial reality, don’t you think?)

In the end, our Flaubertian, twenty-first century Madame Bovary finally faces charges in a Roman court for trafficking in illicit antiquities, “voluntarily” resigns in disgrace (not because of acquiring hot properties, but because she accepted a loan from a museum patron that would pay off her mortgage on the Greek shack), and luckily escapes prison when the statute of limitations expires in the nick of time. The final scene describes this nouvelle Madame Bovary unemployed, but still able to renovate her kitchen somewhere in France.

However outlandish this story might sound, it’s all True (Marion True) in this summer’s sizzling exposé, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World Richest Museum, written by ace journalists Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino (both from the LA Times).  Their new book characterizes the Getty Museum’s head curator of antiquities, Marion True, as a Madame Bovary for our times: self-centered, crusty and driven.  (A Greek tragedy of non-epic proportions.)

On a superficial level, Chasing Aphrodite is just plain fun to read for those who hate duplicitous hypocrites and love to hear about their well-deserved comeuppance.  For marginalized academics, the public humiliation of a self-important art historian is absolutely delicious. What Schadenfreude glee to see the “righteous” punished for going along with an administration that implicitly obstructed investigations into shady provenances.  (Unfortunately, Dr. True went down without the ship.) 

Although Felch and Frammolino organized their museum muckraker tome around Marion True (a novelist could not have chosen a more ironic name for a lead protagonist), the real stars of the show are not the corrupt curator and her equally corrupt colleagues (Getty directors, CEOs, dealers and suppliers).  No, the stars of the show are the works of art: the Morgantina Venus from Sicily (late 5th century BCE), the Athlete of Fano from the Marche Region (a.k.a. Victorious Youth or “Getty Bronze”, circa 500-100 BCE), and other fabulous antiquities smuggled out of  their homelands, like kidnapped children, by some amoral nogoodniks eager for quick cash. 


What in the world is a late Hellenic bronze statue of a victorious athlete doing in the middle of MalibuCalifornia? Why do the British believe they can take better care of the Parthenon sculptures than their hometown AthensGreece?  Sheer arrogance and nothing but.  The soi-disant excuse is that larger and better endowed sanctuaries can keep these precious works in tip-top condition while smaller institutes cannot.  Nonsense.  Even with Greece’s current deficit, they can still handle the demands of a few antique marbles – particularly now that they have a spanking new museum waiting impatiently to receive them. 

At the heart of Chasing Aphrodite is a cautionary tale about today’s Emma Bovarys/Marion Trues of all genders, nationalities and social connections: careerist-lust can often lead to the road of perdition.  In the case of Marion True, trafficking in looted antiquities to increase her curatorial power on the world’s stage fed into the whole nefarious operation that supports criminal activity: the impoverished tombaroli (the actual scavengers on the ground in the archaeological sites that dig up these important historical artifacts), the middlemen (your average thug who could just as easily deal in drugs or arms as stolen artifacts), and the extraordinarily wealthy dealers (whose extravagant villas and showrooms front the looters’ booty). 

If crime and punishment is not your thing, then please read the Chasing Aphrodite for its take on classical antiquities. The writers educate the reader in a manner that is far from dry-as-dust, hopefully encouraging an appetite for a few scholarly publications online.  (I recommend Catherine M. Keesling’s review of Carol C. Mattusch’s book on the Victorious Youth, published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997.)  

And then, as you reach the last page, just imagine your next trip to the Getty Villa or Greek and Roman Wings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Feeling a bit complicit?  Well, say something.  According to Sotheby’s and Christie’s most recent reports, Roman antiquity sales were heating up this spring.  Did you ever stop to consider how they get this stuff? Not from the Italian government, I can assure you.  Thanks to Chasing Aphrodite, we all should know that by now and act on the knowledge.



New York Times on June 2011 Antiquities Auctions:

on Facebook - subscribe to their email for follow-up information

Catherine M. Keeling’s Review of Carol C. Mattusch’s The Victorious Youth, Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997.


  • Mazel Tov to Italy -
  • Happy Hanukah to you all -
  • And best wishes for the holiday season - 

Beth New York
a.k.a. Beth S. Gersh-Nesic, Ph.D.
Director and owner
New York Arts Exchange, LLC

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