|The Getty Museum. Old masters, old problems|
The Economist 19/11/2005
Looted antiquities, a profligate boss and now a criminal trial in a foreign country. The saga of the J. Paul Getty Museum, perched high above the Los Angeles sprawl, is beginning to resemble a B-movie from nearby Hollywood-but with no guarantee of a happy en ding.
Most immediately at risk is the Getty's reputation in the murky market of international art This week its former curator for antiquities, Marion True, went on trial in Rome charged with criminal conspiracy and the receipt of stolen archaeological items. Her co-defendant is Robert Hecht, an 86-year-old American antiquities dealer. Also involved was the appropriately named Giacomo Medici, an Italian dealer who was convicted last year and is now appealing a ten-year prison sentence.
Ms True denies having knowingly bought any looted item. So does the Getty, which is paying Ms True's legal bills. Since 1995, under Ms True's prompting, the Getty has led calls for more rigorous tracing of the provenance of antiquities (in 1999 the museum returned three pieces of dubious provenance to Italy). The Italian authorities, however, are unconvinced. "Italy is not open ground for stealing," said Italy's culture minister, Rocco Buttiglione, last week. "What is the Italian people's should return to Italy."
Under Italian law, anything of value that comes out of the ground belongs to the state. Yet classical artefacts are frequently dug up by so-called tombaroli working on illegal (often nocturnal) excavations. It is also not unusual for previously unknown treasures of Italian origin suddenly to go on display in American
museums. Tracing the connection between these two events is extraordinarily
hard, which is why the trial is being followed so closely by officials in other countries, including Greece and Turkey.
The Italians have started an investigation embracing a number of American museums, from the Metropolitan in New York to institutions in Cleveland, Boston and Princeton. From the Getty the Italians have demanded the return of some 42 objects. "In the interest of settling the litigation and demonstrating the Getty's interest in a productive relationship with Italy", the museum has just handed over a Greek vase painted more than 2,300 years ago, an Etruscan candelabrum and a 2,500-year-old Greek tombstone excavated in Sicily.
What happens in Rome, however, is not the only stain, actual or potential, on the Getty's escutcheon. Over the months there has been plenty of criticism at home, not least from the Los Angeles Times. The particular target is Barry Munitz, appointed in 1998-despite having no background in art—as the president and chief executive of the Getty Trust. The trust's wealth, with an endowment now worth $5.2 billion, has long terrified other museums. Mr Munitz, however, is charged with short-changing the museum's acquisitions programme in favour of the trust's conservation and educational activities.
This is supposedly one reason for the departure of several staff at the museum, notably its director, Deborah Gribbon, in October last year. Ironically, it does not explain Ms True's departure, after almost two decades at the Getty, last month. Her resignation came just as the news emerged that one of the Getty's main suppliers of antiquities had helped arrange a loan in 1995 of almost $400,000 so that she could buy a holiday home in Greece. This was os-
tensibly against the museum's rules, but the Getty's management had apparently known of the loan since 2002.
The most damaging charge against Mr Munitz is of unreasonable extravagance. For an employee of a non-profit organisation, he is extraordinarily well paid: in the year ending June 2004, his overall compensation amounted to $1.2m. The famously tight-fisted J. Paul Getty would no doubt also have been thrilled to discover that Mr Munitz has a $72,000 car and is a firm believer in flying first-class at the Getty's expense, sometimes with his wife.
After details of these perks appeared in the Los Angeles Times, together with the news of the sale of a Getty property for $700,000 less than its appraised value to Eli Broad, a billionaire who is also a friend of Mr Munitz, California's attorney-general opened an investigation into the trust's financial practices. The trust's board, too, has reacted to the revelations, setting up a special committee to check all is well (though critics note that the board includes many friends of Messrs Munitz and Broad).
Conceivably, all will be well. IRS audits in the past have apparently found nothing wrong with Mr Munitz's pay and perks: Italian justice, slow-moving at the best of times, may decide that Ms True was an innocent participant in the transfer of looted antiquities. In the meantime, the Getty is refusing to comment, beyond confirming that the Getty Villa, on the Pacific coast at Malibu, will re-open on January 28th after a renovation that began in 1997. The villa will be a study centre for the art and culture of classical Greece, Rome and Etruria-and, as Italy's cops are doubtless aware, it will house some 44,000 antiquities.