The Goodbye Girl

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Goddess, probably Aphrodite, 425-400 B.C. — © J. Paul Getty Trust

Yes, I’m still on vacation through mid-August, so I resisted the temptation to jump in earlier this week to comment on things like the departure of Guggenheim Director Lisa Dennison for a job at Sotheby’s or the suicide of the artist Jeremy Blake, whose haunting mixed media show Winchester I was lucky enough to catch a few years ago at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

But the deal between the Getty Museum and Italian authorities to return nearly all of the disputed antiquities the Italians have been seeking — that I had to come back for. You can get the details here from L.A. Times reporters Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, who just about own the Getty story.

I’ll just add this much. With this deal, which includes an agreement to return the so-called Morgantina Aphrodite — that’s her up top — Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli has completed a trifecta of give back arrangements with major American museums. (He earlier persuaded the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Art to return numerous ancient artworks that were probably looted from Italian excavations.) And he’s not done. He apparently still plans to pursue return of the so-called Getty Bronze, a 4th century B.C. Greek statue of a victorious athlete that both Rutelli and the Getty have decided for now to postpone discussions on. (And the Getty is right to dig in its heels on that one. Italy’s case for the bronze, which was found in international waters, then brought on to Italian soil briefly before being illegally exported, is a good deal weaker than its claims on other work.) There was also a deal announced last month for the return of work from the Princeton Art Museum. And Rutelli has in his sights as well the Cleveland Museum of Art and objects in the private collection of Metropolitan Museum patron Shelby White. Meanwhile, the Greek government is on the warpath too over the same issue of looted antiquities.

That said, Boston, New York and the Getty were Rutelli’s three biggest targets and he’s now bagged them all. We can expect his demands on American museums to gradually wind down. Which leaves the question, what will be his legacy? Plainly, he established the principle that the 1970 UNESCO agreement on the traffic in antiquities is not just a paper tiger but a real rule of international law that museums will be expected from now on to observe scrupulously or suffer real consequences. (Meaning the return of costly art objects without compensation. There are no refunds for purloined art, though as a sweetener the Italians have promised long term loans to the American museums that have returned disputed works.) Though an illicit market for private collectors will go on, even they will find it harder to donate their collections to wary museums. All of this has to have a real impact on looting at archeological digs.

But will Rutelli’s campaign have a lasting impact on the efforts to regain works of art that left their homeland in the years before the era covered by the UNESCO agreement? Some of the biggest cultural patrimony disputes involve works like that. The Elgin Marbles are the obvious example but there are others. The UNESCO agreement was not only intended to create a legal regime to regulate the trade in antiquities, but to create a kind of statute of limitations for claims by aggrieved nations. (Though Egypt and Ethiopia, to cite two examples, have successfully pursued older claims in recent years.) The objects that Rutelli went after were, I believe, all covered by the UNESCO agreement. But will his success re-open the larger question of artworks that crossed borders in earlier years? At the very least, it’s going to make a lot of claimants bolder.

Meanwhile, you have until the end of this year to get to the Getty Villa see the works that the museum has agreed to return. Or, in the case of the Morgantina Aphrodite, until December 2010. After that, it’s arrivederci baby for her too.

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