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What Went Wrong at the Getty

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Italian Culture Ministry/AP Images
The rare painted marble Greek sculpture of griffins attacking a doe, 325–300 BC, was turned over by the Getty to Italy after evidence emerged that it was plundered from a tomb in southern Italy in the 1970s

The continued emphasis on True is puzzling, in view of the light the authors can cast on what did play out at the Getty and why the museum and the trust that runs it, with all its vast resources, got itself into such an entirely avoidable mess in the first place.

3.

It is hard to think of an institution more suited to Verres-like scrutiny than the Getty Museum. In the early 1980s, following the demise of its founder, the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, the museum came into a billion-dollar inheritance; and like the oil curse, the money has come with a seemingly endless string of scandals, ranging from tax fraud to forgeries to allegations of sexual harassment and misuse of funds. (The museum is part of the Getty Trust, which also runs institutes devoted to art research and art conservation.) These incidents do not by any means tell the whole story of the Getty, and some of them have little to do with the Italian case. But they provide a colorful backdrop to Felch and Frammolino’s account. Indeed, though the fact was somewhat buried by the Los Angeles Times‘s extensive coverage of the Rome trial, the Getty documents leaked to the reporters were not only, or even primarily, about Marion True.

Arguably the single most explosive revelation about the antiquities collection, for example, came in a set of cryptic notes taken in 1987 by former Getty Museum director John Walsh during a conversation with Harold Williams, the president of the Getty Trust:

HW: We are saying we won’t look into the provenance. We know it’s stolen. Symes a fence.

Both Walsh and Williams have insisted that these damning words were hypothetical in intent: they were considering how a new acquisition policy then being drafted would apply if a suspicious object came up for purchase. But regardless, the exchange made clear the degree to which the museum’s leadership was aware of, and sanguine about, the problems in the antiquities market. Worse, at the time of the conversation, the museum was indeed considering a major purchase from Symes—the very cult statue (the so-called Aphrodite) that later became so important in the True case. Were Walsh and Williams saying that they suspected it was looted? Why then did they approve its purchase?

Nor did the revelations end there. Before True became antiquities curator, her predecessor, Arthur Houghton, had relayed in writing some disturbing information to Deborah Gribbon, Walsh’s deputy director: Giacomo Medici, one of the dealers who would later be indicted along with True, had told Houghton that three works the museum had just acquired for $10.2 million—a statue of Apollo, a marble lekanis, or basin, and a rare fourth-century-BC sculptural group of two griffins attacking a doe—had all been pillaged in the mid-1970s from a site “not far from Taranto,” in southern Italy; the lekanis and griffins, he said, had been found in the same tomb.

Years later, when Gribbon herself had succeeded Walsh as director, this forgotten memo would be referred to as a “smoking gun” by Getty staff members; at the time of the True investigation, the memo was further corroborated by one of the most shocking Polaroids turned up by Italian police, a picture of the griffins, dirty and wrapped in Italian newspapers, in the trunk of a looter’s car. As Felch and Frammolino write, “The larger message was left unsaid. Problems in the antiquities department predated True and implicated her superiors, including the museum’s current director.”

It should come as no surprise that, as the directors of a young museum with a huge acquisitions budget, Walsh and Gribbon actively encouraged True’s cultivation of dealers and private collectors. Yet as Felch and Frammolino make clear, they were often less scrupulous than she was about Greek and Roman art of suspicious origin. In a series of chapters devoted to True, the authors portray her as a master of “duplicity” who dissembles to investigators, betrays colleagues, consorts with unsavory characters, and runs up a lavish expense account. But when it comes to concrete wrongdoing, the authors concede,

There was no evidence to suggest that True had been acting as a rogue curator. Indeed, documents unearthed in the internal review suggested that Gribbon, Walsh, and Williams had been fully aware that the museum was buying looted art and had approved all of the objects around which the Italians were building their case.

By the late 1990s, it was True who was criticizing the lax standards of the antiquities trade—and advocating the voluntary return of objects from the Getty for which clear evidence of illicit provenance had emerged—and Gribbon who was opposing her. “Gribbon began complaining to Getty CEO Barry Munitz [who had succeeded Williams in 1998] about True’s crusade against looted antiquities,” the authors write. “True had to be reined in.”

Why didn’t the museum make an effort to defend True vigorously in public? Was it worried that others might be implicated? Felch and Frammolino don’t directly answer this question. But they report that when members of the Getty’s board began to ask questions about the possible legal liability of the museum’s hierarchy, up to and including the board itself, the Getty’s in-house lawyers prepared a briefing paper that carefully downplayed the discovery of “‘troubling’ documents and ‘arresting’ Polaroids” in museum files; in a footnote the authors also add that, according to one person present, when trustees were orally briefed about True’s situation, “anything that seemed to point the finger at Gribbon” was omitted.

But there was something still more egregious about the readiness of Getty officials to sacrifice their curator and run for cover. In failing to recognize that the Italian case was really about the museum itself, Munitz, Gribbon, and the Getty’s board of trustees bungled numerous opportunities to resolve the case long before it ever went to trial.

4.

In the summer of 2002, while writing a magazine article about Italian efforts to crack down on the market for illegal antiquities,3 I spoke to a number of the officials involved in the sweeping investigation that would three years later result in Marion True’s indictment. At the time, their probe had not been made public, and they could not disclose that they were considering the unprecedented step of filing criminal charges against an American curator. But they did reveal they had persuasive evidence that dozens of works in American museums were looted from Italy. They also said that they had given the Getty a list of forty-eight such works and were prepared to make peace if the museum agreed to return some of them.

We’re asking for a symbolic act of restitution,” Daniela Rizzo, a govern- ment archaeologist who worked closely with the Carabinieri and later became a star prosecution witness in the True trial, told me at the time. “It could be ten of these forty-eight objects, after which a new era of relations could begin.”4 Then she added a warning: “The museum is free to decide not to return anything, but at that point, it will have cut off its relations with Italy. We are ready to go to battle on this.”

In fact, as Getty documents leaked to the Los Angeles Times reveal, both Munitz and Gribbon had already been thoroughly briefed about the Italian investigation along these same lines. In their very first meeting with Ferri, in December 2000, Getty lawyers were told, as Felch and Frammolino summarize it, “Return the contested objects, and True will go free.” Less than two months later, in the same confidential January 2001 memorandum in which Munitz was advised not to share “troublesome” correspondence with the Italian prosecution, Richard Martin, an outside attorney for the Getty, informed him that General Roberto Conforti, the head of the Carabinieri’s art theft unit, was closely involved in the investigation, and that “we must be prepared to face the prospect of a public indictment against Dr. True in the relatively near future.” What the authors do not make clear is that Conforti’s main concern was, again, getting back antiquities. In the memo, which was copied to Gribbon, Martin cited the list of works that had been sent by the prosecutor (at that time it was only forty-two objects) and, in a passage they do not quote, stressed the importance of pursuing a restitution deal:

We believe General Conforti… has exerted pressure to proceed against Dr. True and the Getty. In the past, General Conforti has sought return of several items which…the Getty concluded were not appropriate to return. General Conforti has been frustrated by that position…. While the prosecutor has often said that his interest is in pursuing the network of dealers rather than Dr. True, we wonder whether there is anything which he and Conforti want from the Getty as part of an arrangement whereby they would agree to acknowledge that Dr. True’s involvement was, at worst, the result of negligence, rather than any intentional wrongdoing.

Prophetically, Martin also wrote:

I believe that we could successfully defend Dr. True in a trial in Italy…. We fully recognize, moreover, that trials and appeals in an Italian court, no matter how good the outcome for Dr. True, would be a disaster for her reputation and that of the Getty, and would prolong for years the public airing of these issues.

Despite such stark warnings, Gribbon decided to stonewall the Italians. A turning point came in a meeting in Rome in June 2002, when, according to Felch and Frammolino, General Conforti and other senior Italian officials presented Gribbon with much the same deal that the Carabinieri outlined to me that summer. “If the Getty was willing to give back several of the looted objects as a gesture of good faith, the Italians suggested, they would back down,” the authors write. “Otherwise, the Carabinieri official added, ‘this will go on for years and years, and in the end you’re going to give it back to us anyway.’” Astonishingly, Gribbon simply got up and walked out of the meeting.

More than two years later, on September 14, 2004, the Getty finally offered three objects back to Italy, but two of them already had prior grounds for restitution and the clearly looted sculpture group of the griffins was not among them. In the event, by this point Ferri had long since decided to pursue charges against True. A week after the Getty made that insulting offer, Gribbon handed in her resignation as director of the Getty, citing harassment by her boss, Barry Munitz—a feud that had done much to distract the museum from the investigation in Italy. As Felch and Frammolino report, she was quietly given a $3 million severance payment to drop her accusations and not speak to the press. (Accused of misuse of Getty funds, Munitz himself would resign in early 2006.)

5.

The full consequences of the Getty’s colossal missteps in the Marion True case have yet to be tabulated. But one conservative account might be found in the sheer cost of the case to the Getty itself. So many different lawyers worked on the trial and on the Getty’s own dispute with Italy and Greece that it is difficult to estimate how much was spent overall.

  1. 3

    See “Looted Antiquities?” ARTnews, October 2002. 

  2. 4

    In 2002, the Carabinieri told me there was a list of forty-eight objects in the Getty they believed had been acquired in violation of Italian law. Of these, however, there were forty-two that Ferri, the prosecutor, had officially listed as part of his investigation in the fall of 2000, and that were hence mentioned by the lawyer Martin in his January 2001 memo to Munitz. Subsequent lists grew to fifty-two objects (including both the Aphrodite and the Getty Bronze). In a 2007 restitution agreement, the Getty agreed to return forty works, including the Aphrodite. 

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