On Tuesday afternoon, Jeff Israely, the Rome bureau chief of Time, spoke with Francesco Rutelli, the Italian Culture Minister. Rutelli has spent the last year or so slashing and burning his way through the collections of major American museums, demanding — and getting — the return of antiquities that he said had been exported illegally from Italy. Just hours before, Rutelli had the satisfaction of knowing that the first four of 40 objects he had sought from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles had come off a plane at Fiumicino airport in Rome. Earlier this week Jeff and I spent a few days conferring about what to ask him. Here’s what he had to say:
Israely: Are you satisfied with the first shipment from the Getty?
Rutelli: It’s the initial token of their good will. We expect the others will be arriving soon. This is a fresh start for Getty. They are aware that an era is over.
Israely: The agreement with the Getty left unresolved a dispute over the Victorious Youth, one of the most important Greek bronzes in the U.S. Does this mean that you see its status as different from the other works because it was found in international waters? Should we conclude that you don’t expect the Getty to give it up?
Rutelli: No. I am confident that the Victorious Youth will return to Italy, from where it was stolen after being fished out of the Adriatic Sea. It is certain that it was transported illegally, and it’s certain that based on Italian law it must return to Italy. In any case, we have agreed with Getty to suspend our discussion while waiting for the decision of the courts in Pesaro (an Italian city on Adriatic coast), which has opened a case on this affair.
Israely: The town of Monteleone di Spoleto has been pressing the Metropolitan Museum in New York for the return of an Etruscan chariot that came into the Met’s collection in 1903. The Italian culture ministry has not supported the town’s claims so far, but could that change? So far the ministry has not supported any demands for return of items that left the country more than a century ago. Everything gotten back from U.S. museums came to those museums in the last 30 years or so. Will that change? Would you consider moving on these older claims?
Rutelli: No, our position won’t change. It’s right to distinguish between works that were stolen – in Italy, after the 1939 law that oversees patrimony, and above all the UNESCO Convention of 1970 that fights the trafficking of artworks – and those sold 100 years ago. Otherwise, we just might have to deal with Napoleon’s plundering!
Israely: Are you still in discussions with the American antiquities collector Shelby White and if you are, what are you talking about?
Rutelli: Yes, we are in discussions, in a conclusive phase. And I hope that this will conclude very soon. It would be a strong moral message, seeing that we are talking about an important private collection rather than a public museum.
Israely: Are there other public or private collections in the U.S. that you expect to turn your attention to next? What about outside the U.S?
Rutelli: There are at least three important collections in the United States, including the Princeton Museum. But I’m not driven by a battle aimed at America. Our battle is universal and we now intend to turn to European institutions, starting with Denmark, as well as the Japanese and in other parts of the world. And it goes for our country too: we have returned hundreds of stolen archeological artifacts from Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. And we want to give back works from Ethiopia and Libya from the colonial period.
Israely: Do you see your efforts in this area winding down? Can you claim “mission accomplished”?
Rutelli: Not yet. We’re proud of the results we’ve obtained, and above all of the ethical value of the action of “cultural diplomacy.” In Italy, thanks to this intransigence, illegal digging activity has fallen sharply, and the international accords are blocking much of the trafficking activity, as our prosecutors and carabinieri have been doing. But there’s still much to do. We’re going to have further steps, to share our expertise, our know-how in combatting this phenomenon. We have the carabinieiri, archives, and now we have an impressive a data room.
Israely: Why did you decide to make this very firm and ambitious push to reclaim these works of art and antiquities?
Rutelli: I saw that the legal battles could really reduce a racket that was in the hands of Mafia organizations and some terrorist groups in the Middle East. There are conversations in which Mohammed Atta was talking about how some of the money financing terrorism was being made in the illicit art trafficking market. …The solution we have found is intelligent: to the museum that returns stolen works, we loan for several years works that are equally important and valuable. Therefore, those spaces don’t go empty. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was very intelligent. As soon as they understood they had 13 items that were stolen, they sent them straight back within a few days. They opened in an admirable way, and today in the place of the statue of Sabina, wife of the emperor Hadrian, is a sculpture of Eirene, which may even be more beautiful.
Israely: What does it mean for Italy to be on the forefront of this new world order on the issue of stolen art?
Rutelli: More than a nationalistic vision, this is a universal calling linked to beauty and art. It’s not so much a patriotic battle, it’s a battle to defeat crime and abuses, and therefore to give more nobility and transparency to culture. The issue is also one of context. If you have a stolen masterpiece, you don’t know its history. You don’t know where it comes from, if it’s from Sicly or Apulia, or Magna Grecia. They are doomed to be anonymous. That’s the scientific side. The diplomatic side is even more important. We must work together to fight the illegal market.
Israely: When all 40 pieces are back from Los Angeles, will there be a “Getty Give-Back Exhibition” in Rome?
Rutelli: We are discussing something. We want to allow people to see these works and artifacts. Eventually we’ll find the right place to house them permanently. After Boston returned her, we sent the statue of the wife the Emperor Hadrian back to Tivoli to be beside her husband, though we’re not sure if he was so happy to have her back. He was a restless one.