x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

New book traces the Getty Museum's illegal acquisition of antiquities

In 2000, the Getty Museum was investigated over purchases of antiquities pillaged from Italian sites. Now a book written by Los Angeles Times reporters charts the story that might best be referred to as Getty-Gate.

A view inside the J Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. Since 2007, the museum has returned 40 objects illegally exported from Italy.
A view inside the J Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. Since 2007, the museum has returned 40 objects illegally exported from Italy.

Few locations are more serene than the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, a replica of a Roman palazzo on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. The billionaire J Paul Getty is buried in a secluded corner of the grounds. You come here for the sculptures and the sunsets, not for global scandals.

But since 2007, the Getty has returned 40 objects illegally exported from Italy. One arresting image from that ordeal is the snapshot of former Getty antiquities curator Marion True, shielding her face from paparazzi as she entered a courtroom in Rome, where she faced charges of trading in stolen objects. True fled to a Greek island. The story that sent the Getty to court and its curator into disgrace is as racy as any tabloid saga.

You could call it Getty-Gate. In 2000, the Getty Museum was informed that Italian authorities were investigating its purchases of antiquities pillaged from Italian sites. Before long, the dominoes started to tumble.

And now two Los Angeles Times reporters revisit the Getty fall from grace in their book Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum. Befitting the museum's location in Los Angeles, it's a tale made for Hollywood: dramatic, tawdry, often unbelievable, with a cast of beautiful works of art and brazen art dealers.

Getty-Gate offers a case history collectors can't afford to ignore. The rise and fall of the Getty's reputation transformed the antiquities business - in the US, at least.

"Transparency and responsibility are here to stay," said Thomas Kline, a US lawyer experienced in art disputes.

The epic story begins with J Paul Getty himself, an oilman (1892-1976) who made a fortune, first in the Oklahoma fields and then wherever he drilled. By the 1930s, Getty had turned seriously to collecting, and pledged to create a museum for the paintings and sculptures that he had packed into a California ranch house.

The US$700 million (Dh2.6 billion) that Getty left to provide for his art collection grew to make the fledgling Getty Museum the richest institution of its kind. Its parent, the Getty Foundation, is still rich, with an endowment of some $5.3bn.

Pressure to fill the new galleries with eye-popping ancient objects sent trophy-seeking Getty curators to dealers who paid tombaroli (tomb robbers) for unearthed "new" material. In Italy, as in almost all countries with archaeological treasures, that trade is illegal. Back in the 1980s, enforcement was lax. The Getty's antiquities collection grew.

At the time, Jiri Frel, the Getty's urbane and cynical antiquities curator, concocted another growth scheme. He over-appraised donations of objects from local collectors seeking tax deductions, and took personal kickbacks from them. Hundreds of ancient works entered the collection, as Frel famously charmed status-seeking donors while he castigated the vulgarity of his adopted California.

When Frel's gambit was discovered in 1984, the curator fled to Rome, where he ran another art institute until his death. Hollywood screenwriters rarely conjure up so colourful a con man. Frel's successor was Marion True. Platinum-haired and tall, True spoke a then-new rhetoric of researching provenance (history of ownership) conscientiously, which made her museum peers uneasy but won her high-placed friends in countries like Italy. She still bought un-provenanced objects at Getty-scale prices. (The museum's total budget for acquisitions was $100m.)

True herself developed expensive tastes. With a loan obtained through a dealer, she bought a house on the Greek island of Paros. She then borrowed funds to pay off that loan from collectors who sold a group of mostly un-provenanced works to the Getty. The loans violated museum guidelines.

In 1988, True bought a two-metre-high, fifth century BC statue from a London dealer, Robin Symes, for $18m. The acrolith, made of more than one kind of stone, was thought to be of the goddess Aphrodite. Symes told True that it came from a Swiss collector who acquired it in 1939, but photos found by Italian investigators showed it in pieces, covered with dirt, in the 1980s.

Its origins are still unclear - a result of hatchet-work looting by bandits, archaeologists say - but in May of this year the Getty sent the figure back to the small Sicilian town of Aidone, where it is now on view, near the ancient town of Morgantina.

It is one of 40 works that the Getty has returned since 2007. Back in 1997, there was barely a hint of impropriety when the Getty opened its $1.2bn headquarters, on a hilltop 15 minutes drive from the villa, designed by the architect Richard Meier. Critics called the travertine-clad campus overblown, yet attendance soared.

Then a perfect storm gathered force. By 2000, Italian officials announced their investigation into the Getty's antiquities purchases. At the Los Angeles Times, reporters (the authors of Chasing Aphrodite) targeted the Getty as if they were investigating white-collar criminals. The perfect storm had smoking guns. Leaks from within the Getty and Italian law enforcement revealed correspondence indicating that Getty executives were told of the illegal itineraries of works that the museum was purchasing. (In 1986, a resignation letter from the antiquities curator Arthur Houghton faulted "curatorial avarice" and warned officials of provenance problems.)

Antiquities weren't the only problem. In 2004, the Getty Museum's director resigned after a dispute with management and news of a past affair with a curator. Two years later, lavish personal expenses forced out the director of the museum's parent organisation, the J Paul Getty Trust. Both had approved True's acquisitions. The Getty's own investigators found a trove of pictures from Giacomo Medici, an accused black-marketeer now appealing against a 10-year sentence, in the form of hundreds of Polaroids of objects encrusted with dirt that the Getty and other American museums bought. Further confirmation (listing dealers and museum clients) came in an unpublished memoir by the dealer Robert Hecht, which detailed dealings with the Getty.

As evidence mounted, True was charged by an Italian court with dealing in stolen objects and conspiracy. She was fired in 2005 by the Getty - not for buying un-provenanced objects, but for breaking its conflict-of-interest rules. The Getty, which still paid for her defence, took the opportunity to agree to return 40 objects. It also returned a gold wreath that she took to Greece.

Chasing Aphrodite, drawn largely from the coverage of True's plodding five-year trial in the Los Angeles Times, reads like a breathless attempt at turning an art scandal into the Watergate thriller All the President's Men.

Last October, Italy abandoned its long prosecution of True, citing statutes of limitation that expired.

True, claiming innocence on all charges, declared to The Art Newspaper in January that "the intention was to use the case against me to condemn publicly the collecting of antiquities and to terrorise museums and collectors, especially in the United States".

Yet even during that trial, antipathy between the two camps was waning. As True sits on Paros, US museums are conducting exchanges with loan-wary countries such as Italy and Greece, and the US has added Italy to its list of countries from which antiquities cannot be imported. The Association of Art Museum Directors, the US museums' trade association, now requires that any object entering a museum collection have a documented provenance dating back to 1970. The standard that True imposed at the Getty required that an object's provenance be traceable to 1995.

But don't declare a peace yet, insiders warn. Just last year, the Italian magistrate who prosecuted True charged a curator at the distinguished Princeton University Museum with acquiring stolen property. He denies the charges. The case is dragging along in Italy's slow court system. Italy is also seeking the return from the Getty of a bronze Greek statue that fishermen retrieved from the Adriatic in 1964.

Yet if US institutions aren't the problem now, political strife elsewhere is. As Egypt struggles, archaeologists warn, the erosion of what had been a mandate to protect excavation sites and museums could provide opportunities for smugglers. Antiquities in the ground may be safer than ever- from the cash-driven demands of a US buyer such as the Getty in former years, but that doesn't make them safe.