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European Court of Human Rights upholds Italy’s claim to Getty’s Greek bronze

3 May 2024

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Italy can reclaim an ancient Greek statue currently in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. On Thursday, the court rejected the J. Paul Getty Trust’s appeal against a 2018 ruling from Italy’s highest court that ordered the Getty to return the life-size bronze, known as Victorious Youth (300–100 B.C.). The ECHR said the Italian authorities had ‘acted with the purpose of recovering an unlawfully exported piece of cultural heritage’ from the Getty Villa in Malibu. The sculpture was acquired by the Getty in 1977 for roughly $4 million. Italian officials believe that the work was smuggled out of the country before making its appearance on the international market. The Getty argues that it acted in good faith. In a statement following the ruling, the Getty said that it believes its possession of the bronze is ‘appropriate, ethical and consistent with American and international law’ and that it will ‘continue to defend its possession of the statue in all relevant courts.’

Semley Auctioneers, an auction house in Dorset, has withdrawn 18 ancient Egyptian human skulls that belonged to Augustus Pitt Rivers from sale after a public outcry. The skulls were dug up from tombs in El Wadi, Egypt in 1881 by Pitt Rivers, who founded the museum of the same name in Oxford in 1884. A series of public figures spoke out in opposition, including Labour MP and chair of the all-party group for Afrikan reparations Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who described the trade of human remains as ‘a gross violation of human dignity’ that ‘perpetuates a dark legacy of exploitation, colonialism and dehumanisation’. A spokesperson for The Saleroom, which listed the skulls on its website on behalf of the auction house, said that, although ‘these items are legal for sale in the UK and are of archaeological and anthropological interest […] after discussion with the auctioneer we have removed the items from The Saleroom’. The sale of human remains is currently permitted in the UK, provided they were not acquired illegally and are used for decorative purposes only, though there have been calls to change the law.

On Wednesday, President Biden approved the cancellation of $6.1 billion of debt for 317,000 students of the Art Institutes, a group of for-profit art schools in the United States. The group had eight campuses across the country including sites in Atlanta, Houston, Miami and Tampa, all of which closed in September 2023. According to a statement from the President, the schools were found to be ‘engaged in widespread and pervasive substantial misrepresentations that deceived students about the value they would be receiving from their education’. The debt relief applies to 317,000 students who studied at the art schools from 2004 to 2017. 

The shortlist for the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year award was announced on Tuesday. Five UK institutions are in the running, nominated for their work between 2022 and 2024: the National Portrait Gallery and Young V&A, which are both in London, Manchester Museum, Dundee Contemporary Arts and the Craven Museum in Skipton, Yorkshire. At £120,000, with £15,000 for each of the runners-up, the award is the biggest of its kind in the world. The winner will be announced on 10 July. Speaking on behalf of the judges, Jenny Waldman, the director of Art Fund, described the shortlist as ‘shining examples of the impact museums are making locally and nationally’.