Commentary: Problems of Universal Art

Athlete of Fano (Victorious Youth), detail Greece, 300–100 BCE Bronze with inlaid copper, courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles CA.

Juan Javier Negri has forwarded this article which La Nación, a large Buenos Aires daily newspaper, recently published as an editorial.

Athlete of Fano (Victorious Youth) 300–100 BCE, courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Two epis­odes linked to tran­scend­ent works of uni­ver­sal art have recently claimed world­wide atten­tion. One of them is the bust of Nefer­titi, from the four­teenth cen­tury BC, found in Amarna, Egypt, in 1912 and which has been on dis­play in Ber­lin for a cen­tury. The other is the Ath­lete of Fano, a Greek bronze per­haps made by the sculptor Lysip­pus, per­sonal artist of Alex­an­der the Great, between the third and second cen­tur­ies BC and found in 1964 in the sea off the small Italian town from which it now takes its name.

Both pieces share cer­tain char­ac­ter­ist­ics. Per­haps the most rel­ev­ant is that of being remark­able examples of the artistic and cre­at­ive capa­city of those who con­ceived them. Another is their almost per­fect state of pre­ser­va­tion. A third, among other pos­sible, is the degree of know­ledge that they allow us to achieve about dis­ap­peared cul­tures.

Each of them is a paradig­matic example of the cul­tural cooper­a­tion – or lack thereof – between their coun­tries of ori­gin and where they are exhib­ited today.

The bust of Nefer­titi was found by a Ger­man exped­i­tion, which had the neces­sary author­iz­a­tions from the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment. Once the expedition’s task was com­pleted, in 1913, a gov­ern­ment offi­cial from that coun­try estab­lished which pieces would remain there and which could be trans­por­ted to Ger­many to be in the hands of James Simon, the Ger­man phil­an­throp­ist who fin­anced the exped­i­tion. Simon ended up donat­ing his own property to the author­it­ies of his coun­try. Thanks to the wis­dom of these beha­vi­ors, Nefer­titi is cel­eb­rat­ing these days the cen­ten­ary of its peace­ful exhib­i­tion at the Neues Museum in Ber­lin.

Bust of Nefertiti, painted stucco-coated limestone, Amarna, Egypt, photo by Philip Pikart, 8 November 2009, Neues Museum, Berlin, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported license.

The Ath­lete’s story is almost the oppos­ite of the pre­vi­ous one. The sculp­ture was taken from the bot­tom of the Adri­atic Sea by Italian fish­er­men, who sold it on the black mar­ket to those who then illeg­ally expor­ted it from Italy. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu acquired it in 1977 for sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars. The Italian gov­ern­ment resor­ted to all dip­lo­matic and judi­cial resources to have the sculpture restored to it.

The latest epis­ode was a rul­ing by the European Court of Human Rights fol­low­ing an appeal by the Amer­ican museum against a 2018 Italian court’s forfeiture order, seeking an under­stand­ing that the resti­tu­tion of the work to the Italian gov­ern­ment would con­sti­tute a viol­a­tion of the Getty’s prop­erty rights. The European Court held that not only was there no such viol­a­tion, but that the museum had been neg­li­gent, at best, to have acquired a work of art of such import­ance without hav­ing exhausted a reas­on­able invest­ig­a­tion about its proven­ance.

These facts show the imper­at­ive need for each coun­try to have a sound and sens­ible cul­tural policy, which must take into account the need for a trans­par­ent mar­ket, with clear and pre­cise bor­ders, where col­lect­ors and deal­ers can freely nego­ti­ate the pieces obtained legit­im­ately.

Fragmentary colored tiles used as wall-inlays, discovered by James Simon at Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th dynasty, 1351-1334 BC, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Jürgen Liepe.

Mono­pol­iz­ing the pos­ses­sion of the works of art that make up the cul­tural her­it­age of a coun­try in the hands of their respect­ive author­it­ies – as gov­ern­ments such as those of China, Tur­key and Morocco intend – by amend­ing the 1970 UNESCO Con­ven­tion on Cul­tural Prop­erty can also be an effect­ive tool to can­cel the artistic expres­sions of cer­tain cul­tural minor­it­ies.

Juan Javier Negri is an Argentine lawyer practicing in Buenos Aires. He holds a law degree from the University of Buenos Aires and a Master in Comparative Law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law. He is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Fundación Sur, an organization preserving the history and creative works of 20th. century  South American writers and artists. In 2015 he received the Uría Meruéndano Art Law Award granted by the Uría Foundation (Madrid) for his book ‘Banksy’s door: an essay on mistake and error in the purchase of artworks.’ In 2017 he was appointed to serve on the Board of Directors of the Fondo Nacional de las Artes, an autonomous state agency to provide financial assistance to artists and arts projects. Since January 2012, he is included in the Geneva-based WIPO List of Neutrals for Art and Cultural Heritage. He is also a member of the Court of Arbitration for the Arts, The Hague and the president of the Argentine Association of Comparative Law. He writes extensively on art law and cultural matters. He is currently teaching Art and Heritage Law at the Universidad de Palermo in Buenos Aires.

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