|Case of the Looted Relics|
Great Art museums are in part about the beautiful display of money: dearly acquired works shown in costly surroundings. By that standard, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is among the greatest. It occupies a Richard Meier-designed campus of Italian travertine high in the Santa Monica Mountains. It husbands a $5 billion-plus endowment. With that war chest—the legacy of oil mogul J. Paul Getty, who died in 1976—it built in a few decades a collection that would
have taken another museum generations.
Now the Getty is getting attention for the kinds of spending that museums don't brag about. Next month, the trial of former antiquities curator, Marion True, resumes in Italy on charges that she helped the museum buy 42 illegally looted Roman and Etruscan artifacts. True has denied the allegations, but last week she resigned after the revelation that a dealer involved in some of the purchases helped her get a loan for a vacation home in Greece. Critics of the museum say her case is a symptom of a culture of mismanagement and excess, in which the head of the museum's trust allegedly used the institution as a piggy bank to, among other things, buy himself a $72,000 car. The Getty, it seems, may be melting down faster than it was built up.
The tainted-goods charges are not
unique to the Getty. For decades, ancient artifacts have been illicitly dug up and sold to see-no-evil museums. But the Getty was a notoriously aggressive collector, and some in the art world believe that its hunger and spending habits encouraged looting and theft. Ironically, True was responsible in 1995 for the Getty's adopting a strict policy of buying only well-documented pieces. "She extricated the museum from an ethical morass," says University of Virginia professor of art history Malcolm Bell. "It's extremely sad that the one person who understood that the intellectual integrity of her institution depended on respecting knowledge is now going on trial."
But the Getty's problems extend well beyond True. Earlier this year, a Los Angeles Times investigation, based on hundreds of leaked documents, charged that museum officials had known for years that its suppliers may have been selling looted works. A former museum official says the museum did not buy anything it "knew or strongly suspected came from an illicit source." The Times also reported that the trust's president, Barry Munitz, has had the Getty spring for such perks as first-class plane tickets, yacht rentals and a Porsche suv (which he reportedly directed should have "the biggest possible sunroof). Because the Getty is a nonprofit institution, taxpayers would be underwriting his airline legroom, and the California attorney general is investigating the spending. Some Getty staff members contend that Munitz has been more interested in impressing celebrities and rising socially than in serving the institution's interests. (One charge leveled against Munitz, which he denies, is that he helped arrange the sale of Getty-owned property to billionaire Eli Broad, a close friend, at $700,000 less than its appraised value.) "Barry wasn't very interested in the core mission of the organization," says a former staff member. "He was even somewhat bored with it." Last year the Getty lost director Deborah Gribbon, a 20-year veteran, over differences with Munitz, who came to the museum in 1998. Other staff members were alienated when he hired as his chief of staff Jill Murphy—a 33-year-old with little art experience; she has announced that she'll leave at the end of the year. Munitz, who denies allegations of profligate spending, says that friction was to be expected: "You cannot run a big, complicated institution and take risks and make change and not have some people unhappy."
Now he must try to make a larger public happy. He has retained the p.r. services of Michael Sitrick, who previously represented Motley Crue''s Tommy Lee. The museum has hired a new director, Michael Brand, and in early 2006 after a $275 million renovation will reopen the Malibu villa that houses its antiquities. John Walsh, the museum's director from 1983 to 2000, says the Getty once had "a certain intellectual and moral position which was, ironically, brought about by its financial freedom." Things have changed. The museum still occupies its lofty perch in the hills. But, says Walsh: "the Getty is losing the high ground" — Reported by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles