October 15, 2005

Getty were just doing the same as other museums

Posted at 8:46 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The troubles surrounding the Getty continue to be highlighted in the press. Directors of other local museums are trying to distance themselves from the institution. At the same time however, Steven Thomas an expert in art law at UCLA points out that the acquisitions policies of the Getty were no different to those of many other museums around the world.
The example of the Elgin Marbles is cited here, along with the recent Egyptian requests for the return of artefacts, although the items in these cases were acquired by museums long before those that are currently under scrutiny at the Getty.
If nothing else comes of this case, it has done a lot to raise public awareness of the issues surrounding many of the artefacts held in museums.

The Globe & Mail (Canada)

October 14, 2005
Troubles at the Getty Museum ripple through the art world

LOS ANGELES — A plot fit for a Hollywood thriller has been unfolding at the venerable J. Paul Getty Museum, a gleaming hilltop refuge that Italian authorities claim houses pilfered art.

A decade after leading efforts against the illegal trade of artifacts, the museum’s recently departed antiquities curator faces trial next month in Rome over allegations that she knowingly received dozens of stolen items.

The internationally renowned Getty finds itself deflecting a barrage of questions about how it amassed its world-class collection of Roman, Greek and Etruscan works. And the art world is left to wonder whether the museum’s current dilemma will refocus attention on how art is acquired.

“We don’t want to become associated with Enron-type institutions,” said Selma Holo, director of the International Museum Institute at the University of Southern California. “We’re all looking to our own gardens and making sure we’ve cultivated them properly.”

Getty officials have denied any wrongdoing. The museum recently described the return of three objects, including an Etruscan bronze candelabrum Italian authorities allege was stolen from a private collection, as “demonstrating the Getty’s interest in a productive relationship.”

That hasn’t slowed Italian prosecutors, who hope their trial of former antiquities curator Marion True will deter art trafficking.

“The Getty case is so important that it will represent a milestone and completely change relations within the art world,” Anna Maria Reggiani, director of archaeology at the Italian Culture Ministry, said.

That attitude is a break with the past. With foreign authorities less aggressive than now, museums competing to build their collections might have been more willing to look the other way regarding the origins of high-dollar antiquities.

“The Getty was not acting alone in this way,” said Steven Thomas, an art law expert and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Many museums were doing this.”

Greece has long sought the return of statues and fragments known as the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, taken in the 19th century from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire; Egypt wants to reclaim iconic artifacts including the Rosetta Stone from London and a Nefertiti bust from Berlin.

The opening of the $1 billion Getty museum complex nearly eight years ago was heralded as one of the most important art events in recent U.S. history.

Funded by a multibillion-dollar endowment from the oil magnate, the museum for years had been housed at the intimate Getty Villa in Malibu. The new complex — a maze of marble buildings overlooking Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean — let Getty trustees develop a campus featuring an eclectic mix of furniture, illuminated manuscripts and 17th-century Dutch paintings.

Boosters hoped it would silence skeptics who regarded Los Angeles as a cultural wasteland.

But while the museum has generated international acclaim, it also has attracted an international investigation.

In May, a judge in Rome ordered True tried on charges that she allegedly helped the museum acquire, between 1986 and the late 1990s, about 40 archaeological treasures stolen from private collections or dug up illicitly. They include a stone sculpture representing Aphrodite and a marble statue of Tyche, the goddess of fortune, that both are more than 2,000 years old.

The charges surprised those who have considered True, 56, a pioneer in advocating for greater scrutiny of the provenance, or ownership record, of antiquities.

“She has been known to take the aggressive stance, instilling in everyone that they should only be acquiring established and well-documented objects,” said Thomas, the art law expert.

Under True’s leadership in 1995, the Getty was among the first museums to publicly detail a stricter policy for the acquisition of antiquities. In 1999, the Getty returned three pieces to Italy, including a fifth century B.C. drinking cup.

Antiquities are one hallmark of the museum, which also houses paintings, drawings, decorative arts and photographs. When the villa in Malibu reopens in January following a six-year, $275 million renovation, it will be dedicated to the display of about 1,200 pieces from the extensive antiquities collection.

At the reopening, museum officials hoping to spotlight the ancient objects may instead hear whispers.

“People will wonder,” Thomas said. “They are going to look at those pieces and say, ‘Are these some pieces that are questionable?”‘

Italian prosecutors charged True with criminal association and receiving stolen goods. The case follows a 10-year investigation centering on Italian art dealer Giacomo Medici, who was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison for conspiracy in international trafficking of antiquities. He remains free pending appeal.

Along with True, Robert E. Hecht Jr., a Paris-based American art dealer, has been charged. Their trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 16. True has denied the charges, and Getty officials have said publicly they have no evidence of wrongdoing.

A recent Los Angeles Times investigation, citing internal documents, reported that Getty lawyers have determined that half of the 104 artifacts the museum identified as masterpieces were purchased from dealers now under investigation for selling stolen artifacts.

Getty officials declined a request for an interview and True did not return messages seeking comment. Her lawyer in Rome said True did not want to comment other than to assert her innocence. “Mrs. True wants to keep the trial in court, the only setting in which the truth can emerge,” attorney Francesco Isolabella said.

True stepped down earlier this month after museum officials determined that she violated policy by failing to report details of her purchase of a vacation home on a Greek island. True reportedly secured a $400,000 loan for the home with help from one of the institution’s main suppliers.

All this comes amid a leadership vacuum at the Getty.

The museum’s former director abruptly left last year owing to differences with executives at the Getty Trust, which oversees the museum and divisions of art conservation, research and philanthropy. The acting director has also departed to head the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The trust has its own troubles. The Los Angeles Times has detailed lavish spending by the office of the nonprofit trust’s chief executive, Barry Munitz, and both the Council on Foundations and the California attorney general’s office have launched inquiries.

A few weeks before the antiquities villa reopens, Michael Brand, 47, will take over as museum director. Brand — an expert in Indian art who has been director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts since 2000 — did not return calls seeking comment, and Getty officials indicated he would not be available for an interview until assuming his post Dec. 1.

In Virginia, Brand helped raise $158 million to expand the museum. He previously headed museums and galleries in his native Australia, Pakistan and Rhode Island. He has said he will arrive at the Getty enthusiastic and optimistic and not thinking “this is a museum needing radical change.”

Fallout from the current situation will likely make museum officials more inclined to aggressively check the documentation of an artifact to ensure it isn’t tainted. Whether the outcry and trial will dampen public enthusiasm for the Getty is another matter.

“In the art world, people will still look at various pieces the Getty has and say these are questionable,” said Thomas, the art law expert. “Outside the art community, the press and media attention will die down and people will enjoy going to the Getty.” (AP)

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