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The supply chain of art crime

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

The black market for art is one of the most lucrative and unregulated in the world, and one of its main fields concerns the illegal trafficking of antiquities[1]. Its structure is complex and involves actors from different backgrounds, such as tombaroli, auction houses and museums. To partially understand this complexity, it is possible to look at the legal case of the Alteta di Fano.


The Atleta di Fano (the Getty Bronze) is a bronze statue by Lysippus[2]. It was found in international waters in 1964 by Italian fishermen who sold it to an Italian antiquarian. He then hid the statue into a church in Gubbio with the help of a priest. When the Italian authorities found out about this story, the statue was already gone. The bronze reappeared in Brazil and then in London in 1971, where it was purchased by a consortium called Artemis, which was run by Heinz Herzer, one of the most notorious figures in the modern scenario of the illicit trafficking of antiquities. In 1972, Herzer offered the bronze to Paul Getty, who refused it due to the lack of valid documentation on the legal status of the piece. However, after his death in 1976, the Paul Getty Museum bought the statue and named it the “Getty Bronze”, which became the masterpiece of the antiquity department.


At this point the American and Italian legal version of the story are rather different. According to the U.S., the museum had the legal right to purchase. The Italian High Court stated that there was no evidence on the actual origin of the bronze, the Italian Ministry of Culture failed to pursue a legal process and renounced on claiming the piece, as stated by official Luigi Salerno. However, this version lacks historical context and important details. For instance, the failure of the Ministry of Culture lays in its inexistence at that time. Also, the Getty’s timeline does not specify the date of the Salerno’s statement; at the time in which Paul Getty was interested in the bronze, Salerno was retired, and his recommendation was not officially considered.


Back to the story, the bronze was “legally” exported from the United Kingdom to the Paul Getty Museum in 1978. According to the U.S., the Italian Embassy in London contacted the Italian authorities claiming that the Artemis gallery obtained an official certificate for the legal exportation of the bronze, but the Carabinieri never found it. Then, in 2007, Italy decided to drop the lawsuits against in exchange of forty pieces that the museum had illegally purchased, including the Atleta di Fano and a 5th BC marble statue of Aphrodite. The Getty agreed, but it did not return the bronze.


The last ten years of statue’s story has been characterized by multiples legal fights that officially ended in December 2018. In 2007 the Tribunal of Pesaro opened a new case providing actual photos dated 1977 that saw a bronze covered with marine life that matched the Getty Bronze pictures. Hence, the Italian magistrate Mussoni claimed the bronze was illegally exported from Italy to the U.S. The main argument of the new investigation was based on the Italian Navigation Code, which stated that even if the fishing vessels were in international waters, they were still Italian property. In addition, Mussoni reclaimed the illegality of the bronze on the basis of the Art. 666, 667, and 676 of the Italian Criminal Code, and the Art.174(3) Legislative Decree no. 42 of 2004, and article 301 of Presidential Decree n. 15 of 1972. Nevertheless, The Getty Museum still refused to return the statue, and it applied to the Court of Cassation, which, in 2015, transferred the case to the Third Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court. After three years of continuous trials, Italy's Court of First Instance and the Tribunale di Pesaro, rejected the Getty’s opposition, declaring the official and legal origin of the bronze and its immediate repatriation, which has not happened yet.


There are plenty of such cases but even this instance alone embodies how articulate the supply chain of stolen artworks is. It involves different actors, ranging from legal bodies to local shops and it is often built through a mix of personal relationships, accomodating legal frameworks and inter-state dynamics - just like regular supply chains. It is also worth remembering that there is a strong linkage between art collections and soft power at a global level. Being able to leverage cultural heritage can attract tourists, jobs and capital for states and their financial ecosystems. Thus, given how hard it can be to trace artworks back to their original source, it is not uncommon at all for the legitimate art industry to benefit from a not-so-legitimate supply chain.


Credits to: Ilaria Bortot.

[1] Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Art Theft.” https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/violent-crime/art-theft [2] Albertson Lynda, “A History of the Statue of the Victorious Youth - Comparing the Getty's Timeline with Italy's”, Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA). https://art-crime.blogspot.com/2018/12/a-history-of-statue-of-victorious-youth.html

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