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What Went Wrong at the Getty

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Marion True with General Roberto Conforti, head of the Italian police’s art theft unit, at the Getty Center, fall 1997

I recently reviewed tax filings by the Getty Trust showing that it paid $16 million for outside legal services between mid-2005 and mid-2007 alone—a period during which it had handed its Italian dealings to a team of lawyers from a high-end Los Angeles firm. (This does not include the $750,000 that, according to Felch and Frammolino, the Getty paid to a “crisis management” firm, also in Los Angeles, for “largely unheeded advice.”) A truer estimate, though, would also have to take account of the hundreds of millions dollars’ worth of art—far more than the Italians would have been contented with in 2002—that was finally turned over to Rome and Athens, leaving the Getty Villa a pallid shadow of its former self. Rarely have lawyers been paid so much to lose so much.

Yet the real damage of the case—apart from the ruinous and unjust consequences for True herself—may lie in its far-reaching effects on numerous other museums, which have rushed to relinquish numerous Greek, Roman, and Etruscan works from their own galleries to Italy, sometimes on what have appeared less than prudential grounds. Meanwhile, an Italian prosecutor has now initiated a criminal investigation of a curator at the Princeton University Museum of Art, on similar allegations of taking part, with an Italian dealer, in a conspiracy to traffic in looted antiquities. The case may yet resolve itself out of court (perhaps by sending more objects to Rome), but it suggests just how attractive the prosecutorial approach has become in some quarters of the Italian government.5

For its part, the Getty Trust has now hired James Cuno—the director of the Art Institute of Chicago and a staunch defender of collecting museums—as its new president. (The Getty Museum continues to search for a director, a position that has been open for over a year.) It will be interesting to see whether Cuno will succeed in persuading Italy to drop its continued efforts to get back the Getty Bronze, a second- or third-century-BC life-size bronze of a victorious youth, found in the Adriatic Sea in the early 1960s—a claim that some proponents of restitution see as far-fetched.

In recounting the Getty disaster with such relish, Chasing Aphrodite wants to attribute to it “an epochal change in the history of collecting art.” Indeed, the case has hastened a number of welcome changes at large (American) collecting museums, which have become far more vigilant about the origins of the art they acquire. It has also had a salutary effect on countries like Italy with large archaeological resources, which have begun to loosen restrictions on lending important material from their museums and storerooms to museums abroad. This is an especially desirable development (one that, as the authors note, True herself had advocated years earlier) and it is to be hoped that long-term loans, or even semipermanent loans, could allow well-endowed foreign museums to publish and display major works to very large audiences without having to resort to the acquisition of material of murky provenance from the art market.

Yet for all the documents they bring to light, there is an odd incongruity to the kind of prosecutorial certainty Felch and Frammolino bring to their story. As their own extensive footnotes reveal, events they want to see one way may be open to a quite different interpretation. Even now, scholars are trying to determine the identity of the cult statue after which the authors name their book (several think it is not Aphrodite); and archaeologists continue to seek the place where it was found. In the meantime, Italy can enjoy the same exquisite artworks of unknown origin that had previously graced American display cases: a victory less for archaeology, perhaps, than for the approach endorsed by collecting museums of showing beautiful objects that, even without knowledge of their discovery, may bring alive the ancient world to the modern public.

Letters

What Went Wrong at the Getty?’: An Exchange August 18, 2011

  1. 5

    See my report, “Italy Focuses on a Princeton Curator in an Antiquities Investigation,” The New York Times, June 2, 2010. It is worth noting that the investigation once again mentions objects at a number of different American museums. 

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