One rule for the Getty, another for Italy? Italian group appeals restitution verdict

When it comes to returning antiquities from its own collections, Italy drags its feet

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The Italian conservation group Italia Nostra has appealed against the verdict of a court in Lazio, central Italy, which ruled in April that a second-century statue of Venus currently on display in the Palazzo Massimo museum in Rome should be returned to Libya.

The case will now go to the Council of State, Italy’s highest administrative tribunal; as we went to press, no date had been set for a hearing.

The headless marble sculpture, a Roman copy of a Greek original, was removed by Italian troops in 1912 from the ancient Greek settlement of Cyrene on the Libyan coast. Libya was an Italian colony from 1911 to 1942. Libya first asked for the statue’s return in 1989.

The court in Lazio reportedly ruled that the work could “in no way be catalogued as a discovery on Italian soil”.

We asked Italia Nostra if their opposition to restitution of the sculpture was hypocritical in the light of Italy’s campaign to obtain antiquities from museums in the US, most notably the Getty, Metropolitan, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A spokeswoman for the conservation organisation said: “The statue of Venus was not stolen by the Italians but discovered by chance in Cyrene which was then under Italian rule...the works Italy wants returned from the Getty Museum were illegally excavated, exported in violation of the 1939 law [under a 1939 Italian law, all archaeological property excavated in Italy belongs to the Italian state] and acquired in an illegal way. The Venus is not comparable. It’s like asking for the restitution of works from the Louvre taken from Italy by Napoleon.”

In 2005, Italy returned to Ethiopia a second-century BC stelae which had been removed from a Christian cemetery at Axum by Mussolini’s troops in 1937. The Italian government had first agreed to return the obelisk in 1947.

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