Digging Up the Past

In June 1964, a group of fishermen off the northern Adriatic coast pulled a dull gray mass, shaped like a man, covered in barnacles, out of the water. It was the statue now known as Victorious Youth, believed to be the work of Lysippus-Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor. The fishermen took the statue ashore and sold it, cheap. It changed hands many times after that, quietly, until 1977, when the J. Paul Getty Trust purchased it for a then-record sum of $4 million from a Munich art dealer. In February 2010, Italy won a lawsuit in Italian court against the Los Angeles museum, demanding the statue’s return. The Getty, appealing, has yet to comply, arguing it was a Greek statue found in international waters.

One antiquities dealer argues: Who can tell me today that a Roman urn in New York is less a Roman urn than in Italy?

Victorious Youth is far from the only masterpiece in limbo-or in court. As million-dollar antiquities auctions (and a controversy surrounding them) kick off in in New York the week of June 6, never has the tension between collector, dealer and so-called “source” nation been higher. Late last week, Germany’s Foreign Minister formally spurned Egypt’s request for the return of the 3,000-year-old Bust of Nefertiti that sits in a Berlin Museum; three months ago Egypt hosted an international conference demanding the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum, which has had it for 200 years. There are ongoing legal battles and new, or louder, claims from Turkey, China and Greece for the return of items. But Italy has been the most aggressive, successfully demanding the return of objects from both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty. (The Getty has returned 39 disputed objects to Italy since 2006, and isn’t finished, according to the museum’s general counsel, Stephen Clark.) Such disputes have pulled in collectors and chilled the climate for buying certain works, regardless of quality, dealers and auctioneers report. Now, three pricey ancient Greek items up for sale at Christie’s next month threaten to become a part of the messy, murky issues clouding the market.

Here’s the back story: In 1995, Swiss and Italian investigators raided the Geneva warehouse of art dealer Giacomo Medici. Inside, they found a treasure trove of ancient objects, part of a massive network of illegally trafficked artifacts that Italian prosecutors said was orchestrated by Mr. Medici. He was found guilty of trafficking by an Italian court in 2004 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The case is on appeal. The warehouse contained hundreds of in-situ photographs of the objects that established their illegal excavation, mostly from Italy but also from Egypt and Greece. Many of these objects eventually ended up on the international antiquities market and in the collections of such leading collectors as Metropolitan Museum of Art trustee Shelby White.

Some attorneys and self-appointed looting watchdogs claim that three items up for sale at Christie’s on June 10 are pictured in those Medici warehouse photographs. “There were a lot of them, so it’s no surprise they’d still be popping up in sales,” said Patty Gerstenblith, who practices art and cultural heritage law.

At issue are Lot 139, a marble torso of a youth, headless, legless, missing the right arm, holding a cockerel in his left hand, valued at $20,000 to $30,000; Lot 112, a Greek terra-cotta goddess, nearly nude with draped fabric barely covering her left side, head cocked with attitude, valued at $6,000 to $8,000; and Lot 104, a cylindrical bowl featuring the image of a nude, frowning Eros, which rests atop a black goat’s head with white horns, valued at $25,000 to $35,000. “As a matter of policy, we do not sell works that we have reason to believe are stolen,” a Christie’s spokeswoman said.

Digging Up the Past