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European court upholds Italy's right to seize Greek statue from U.S. museum

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A Los Angeles museum faces pressure to return an ancient work of art to Italy. Italian courts said the J. Paul Getty Museum should send back a bronze statue known as Victorious Youth, showing a very fit young man. The Getty appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which also said the museum should send the statue back. Derek Fincham of South Texas College of Law is following this story. He says the statue turned up decades ago when fishermen pulled it out of the Mediterranean Sea, possibly after a shipwreck.

DEREK FINCHAM: That's one of the leading theories and probably the most likely theory. Maybe he was on tour, or he had been bought or sold or was on his way to a collector or somewhere and just didn't make it to the end of that voyage.

INSKEEP: I'm enjoying that I think of the statue as an it, but you refer to the statue as he. He's got a lot of personality to you, it seems.

FINCHAM: Well, he is. He's fully nude, so he is very proud of his physical prowess, I guess, and he is, you know, pointing to his head, probably pointing at maybe a - you know, a laurel or some kind of victory wreath, maybe having just won an athletic competition.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's why he's the Victorious Youth. And then how did it end up in Los Angeles?

FINCHAM: Well, it's a complicated story that has a lot of twists and turns, but essentially, it was smuggled. A statue like this would have been covered in barnacles when it was brought up on the shore, and they start to die and decompose. And so it would have been quite a terrible smell. The bronze is alleged to have been buried in a field so as to disguise it and kind of wait out those barnacles, and then it was later smuggled through various transit states.

INSKEEP: Has the Getty Trust always maintained they had a valid claim to the statue then?

FINCHAM: Well, they have, but they've done something called - what we in the field call optical due diligence, where they asked a few questions, but not enough to really get to the answer and to get to the truth.

INSKEEP: Can I ask about Italy's claim to this statue? It wasn't found in the middle of Rome or something. It was found off in the Mediterranean, and it's an ancient Greek statue. Does Italy really have a claim to it?

FINCHAM: They do. And it's a good question because we hear Greece, and we think, well, why doesn't modern-day Greece want this object back? The reason is because modern-day Greece is not the same as ancient Greece. Ancient Rome is not the same as modern-day Italy. These are different from the ancient cultures, which were - overlapped and crossed the Mediterranean.

INSKEEP: The European Court of Human Rights is the body that ruled that the Getty has to send this statue back to Italy. Now I have to ask, does the Getty have to do what a European court or an Italian court tells them?

FINCHAM: Well, they haven't asked my opinion of what they should do. They don't have to. There's no mechanism in the European court that could outright force the Getty to do this, but there is something called a mutual legal assistance treaty that the United States has with countries like Italy, and it allows both countries to assist each other in seizing and forfeiting the proceeds of crime.

INSKEEP: You said the Getty hasn't asked your advice about what they should do. I'll ask it. What should they do?

FINCHAM: They should return him, in my opinion. There are not many of these ancient bronzes in existence. And so to have an object like this in this terrific condition really is one of the world's great pieces and pieces of cultural heritage that we all have an interest in seeing taken care of. The Getty is a museum. It's a nonprofit, and it has a duty to the public, and it holds these objects in the public trust. And I think it's violated the public trust by treating the statue in this way.

INSKEEP: Derek Fincham of the South Texas College of Law. Thanks.

FINCHAM: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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