Princeton University Returns Art to Italy

The Princeton University Art Museum has returned six works of art from the museum’s collection to Italian cultural authorities under a transfer agreement between the two parties, the University has announced.

The transfer agreement is an addendum to an agreement with Italy that Princeton University entered into in 2007.  The works were returned in December. The University says the transfer of title for the six returned items is an important aspect of the agreement because it recognizes that the legal title for the works rested with Princeton before the transfer, and that the works were acquired by Princeton in good faith.

The items that were transferred include a black-glazed askos, a pair of female statuettes, four fragments of a red-figure calyx krater, fragments of an architectural relief, a pithos in white-on-red style, and a group of fragmentary architectural revetments.

“The spirit of these negotiations has sought to maintain scholarly access to important works of art while honoring international agreements relative to the disposition of cultural property,” James Steward, director of the Princeton University museum, said in a post on the University’s website about the return of the art. “As with our previous agreement, the museum and the University established a matrix of criteria to evaluate the status of these objects, including such factors as the object’s probable site of discovery and place of manufacture.”

In 2002, the museum voluntarily returned to the Italian government an ancient Roman sculptural relief in its collection. The University contacted Italian authorities after the museum’s own research revealed that although the work was acquired by the museum in good faith in 1985, the sculpture was taken from Italy without a legal export permit. In 1953, the museum returned to Rome an ancient marble head of a goat stolen in World War II. The mayor of Rome later gave the sculpture back to Princeton in recognition of the museum’s commitment to learning.

Under the 2007 agreement, the University transferred title to eight works of art and Princeton students were granted unprecedented access to excavation sites managed by the Italian ministry for the purposes of archaeological study and research. Since then, the museum has also carried out an important program of long-term loans from the Ministry of Cultural Properties and Activities of the Republic of Italy that has brought masterworks of ancient Italian art to Princeton in support of its research and teaching activities.

The University says the new agreement is the culmination of discussions that were initiated by the University following an internal University analysis related to several items in the museum’s collections. The University says it made an assessment of the items and then approached the Italian authorities, leading to the transfer agreement.

In 2010, Italian authorities launched a criminal investigation focusing on a curator at the university’s museum who allegedly was involved in exporting and stolen Italian artifacts.  Antiquities curator J. Michael Padgett allegedly aided a Princeton alumnus and art dealer who sold, donated or loaned looted artifacts to the Princeton Museum. Padgett said he was innocent.

The story received international attention after the investigation was detailed in the New York Times. At the time, school officials said they had received information about the investigation secondhand, that Italian authorities had not contacted the school and that no allegations were brought against the school. School officials said they were conducting their own investigation based on the information they had.

In recent years, the Italian government has aggressively sought to recover ancient treasures from around the U.S., with museums giving up dozens of pieces of art and artifacts that the country claims were looted. In exchange for cooperation, the museums received loans of other objects.

One Comment

  1. The repatriation of these objects is absurd in the extreme. The Italians boast of their ability to repatriate works of art but simultaneously cannot manage their vast cultural heritage. The deplorable conditions at Pompeii and the condition of the sites in Rome itself, particularly that of the Colosseum

    are but two examples of the hypocrisy–the Italians cannot take care of their own so they launch witch hunts against those who cherish, protect, preserve, and educate the world about that heritage in order to conceal their own disregard for and indifference toward their own cultural property.

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