Rome’s ‘Nostoi’ Marks Homecoming of Italian Artwork

February 18, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Over the centuries, archaeologists and looters unearthed ancient sculptures and other works of art on the Italian peninsula, taking their finds home with them. Now, with "Nostoi," Greek for "return home," Rome celebrates the return of many of these masterpieces to the land of their creation.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, an unusual odyssey and an ongoing controversy over looted art. Jeffrey Brown was in Rome recently and has our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: Her name was Vibia Sabina, wife of the Roman emperor Hadrian. She stands now a marble statue from the 2nd century A.D. as part of an exhibition in Italy.

But the key word on the placard here is the very small one at the bottom left, “Gia,” which means in Italian “formerly.” This Roman lady spent more 25 years at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Now she’s back.

The exhibition is called “Nostoi,” from a Greek word meaning “a return home.” Here atop one of Rome’s famous hills in one of its grandest palaces, Italians are celebrating a unique return home of objects that once came out of the ground here and then spent decades in museums in the United States.

FRANCESCO RUTELLI, Minister of Culture, Italy: It’s a complicated story, but it has a sort of happy end.

JEFFREY BROWN: Francesco Rutelli is Italy’s culture minister.

FRANCESCO RUTELLI: We’ve been fighting the battle for legality, for transparency, and for a big change, living art, archeology, and the people, the public, letting them to be very clear that what they see in a museum is clean.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rutelli’s ministry organized the exhibition at the Quirinale Palace, home to Italy’s president. Inside, Italians have been flocking to get a glimpse of the 68 objects on display.

All according to Italian authorities were illegally dug up from archeological sites within the last several decades and sold into an international black market.

They then passed into the hands of private dealers and commercial galleries and eventually into the collections of public museums. The museums involved have said they were unaware of the illicit origins of the objects.

The oldest work on display, a wine jug dating from around 700 B.C., came from the Princeton University Art Museum. Several objects came from New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which agreed to their return in 2006.

Museum Director Philippe De Montebello.

PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The good faith in which both sides have entered into this agreement, an agreement that, from our point of view, corrects a number of improprieties and errors committed in the past will pave the road to new legal and ethical norms for the future.

Negotiating for artifacts

JEFFREY BROWN: The largest number of objects in the exhibition, including this stunning 4th century B.C. sculpture of two mythical griffins attacking a deer, came from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Some of the evidence for looting has come out in the ongoing trial of former Getty antiquities curator Marion True, who's been charged with trafficking in stolen art. She denies any wrongdoing.

Negotiations with the Getty itself dragged on as the museum disputed some of Italy's claims. An accord was finally reached last fall.

Rutelli, the former mayor of Rome, has been on a public crusade for the return of these objects since taking office in 2006. In September of that year, he welcomed the return of a dozen artifacts from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, among them the Vibia Sabina sculpture.

These objects were clearly very important to the museums. They didn't want to give them back. So how did you get them?

FRANCESCO RUTELLI: We started with, how to say, moral suasion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Moral suasion?

FRANCESCO RUTELLI: And we said very simply that they were clearly looted. Because of moral suasion had a great success with some museums, for instance, the Boston Fine Arts Museum. They were fantastic. Some other museums were a little bit more prudent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Prudent or stubborn?

FRANCESCO RUTELLI: They said no. And at the very end, I had to say, "Please, if we don't sign an agreement, if you don't send back masterpieces that are clearly looted, we will stop our cooperation and we will ask to our museum not to allow loans, not to allow scientific cooperation with the museums that continue to accept, to exhibit, to expose looted masterpieces to the public, because it's unacceptable."

JEFFREY BROWN: So do you believe that the museums knew that the objects were looted?

FRANCESCO RUTELLI: I think they know that somebody closed the eyes, that somebody trafficked, that somebody looted it somewhere. When you look at some frescoes that were violently looted near Pompeii, you ask yourself, "But how somebody could think that these frescoes, I don't know, had the wings to fly to an American museum?" I don't think so.

Curbing illicit art trade

JEFFREY BROWN: Italy isn't alone in taking aggressive steps in recent years. Greece reached its own agreement with the Getty. Peru and Yale University are currently working on a deal to return artifacts excavated from Machu Picchu between 1911 and 1915.

Recently, U.S. authorities raided several California museums in an investigation of illegal smuggling of art from China and Thailand and from American Indian tribal lands.

The issue has been a difficult one for museums more accustomed to being seen as enlightened temples of culture. Maxwell Anderson has followed the issue for years as a scholar of antiquities, as the former head of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and now as the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

He spoke to us recently in Washington before the news of the raids on museums in California.

MAXWELL ANDERSON, Director, Indianapolis Museum of Art: There has been a shifting approach to how museums build collections over the years. And up until fairly recently, museums weren't as attentive to how objects arrived in a dealer's gallery in London or Switzerland or New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where they came from, how they got to the museums?

MAXWELL ANDERSON: Right. How it got to that gallery in a nice case in London and where was it before? The issue was more for museums, until several years ago, how can that object be of use in an educational context?

And most museums would now agree that collecting objects by purchase from sources unknown is unacceptable. We have to know what we're buying. We have to have good title pass with the object, or we're putting the museum at risk and certainly we're encouraging the illicit trade.

Setting a statute of limitations

JEFFREY BROWN: But a continuing question now is how far back in time countries can push their demands for repatriation. Italy, says Rutelli, is pursuing objects looted after a 1970 UNESCO convention that protects cultural property, effectively making that date the cut-off point.

FRANCESCO RUTELLI: Of course, we can't go back to Napoleon. And we can't go back to dealing in the end of 19th century or beginning of the 20th century.

JEFFREY BROWN: When so many things were taken.

FRANCESCO RUTELLI: When many, many things were taken, but there was not a clear regulation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maxwell Anderson agrees a cut-off date is appropriate.

MAXWELL ANDERSON: The question that faces museums is: What do you do about material that entered American collections a generation ago? Nothing is really served, except an emotional or national agenda, by returning it to a place without adding back the context.

So I think it's more a question of how we go forward than it is how we look back and penalize those who collected in earnest and in good faith a generation ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: For now, all sides say they're satisfied with the agreements. U.S. museums, Rutelli points out, are getting loans, like this one now in Boston, in exchange for their cooperation.

FRANCESCO RUTELLI: When the museums, the institutions cooperate, we give them even more beautiful artifacts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Italy has also just announced a major loan to the Getty of sculptures by 17th-century master Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

As for Vibia Sabina and the other objects currently in Rome, they're expected to be sent to regional museums throughout Italy when this exhibition closes at or near the sites where they're believed to have been dug up.