Getty’s antiquities policy gets kudos vs. the Met


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Colin Renfrew, a British archaeologist who is an authority on the trade in looted antiquities, is poised to come down on New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art like a ton of travertine.

Travertine is the Roman stone adorning the buildings at L.A.’s Getty Center, and Renfrew plans to wield the Getty like a cudgel against the Met in a Jan. 10 speech in Philadelphia. As he sees it, the Getty got it right in 2006 when it adopted more stringent rules to ensure that ancient artifacts it’s interested in adding to its collection haven’t been illegally dug up and smuggled abroad. And the Met, in his eyes, needs to tighten its standards.


The title of Renfrew’s lecture is a mouthful, but it pretty much lays out his agenda of invoking one major museum to embarrass another into action -- not to mention his willingness to violate the museum world’s unwritten rules of politesse: ‘Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: The 1970 Rule as a Turning Point (or How the Metropolitan Museum Lags Behind the Getty).’

Cindy Ho, president of SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone, the New York-based group that’s sponsoring the lecture -- given in conjunction with Renfrew accepting SAFE’s Beacon Award for raising public awareness about looted antiquities -- said Wednesday that folks have been commenting on both the length of Renfrew’s title and his frankness in calling out the Met.

‘In this particular circle it makes certain people uncomfortable to directly mention the Met,’ she said.

Since the Archaeological Institute of America and the American Philological Assn. (devoted to the study of ancient Greek and Roman languages and civilization) will be confabbing for their joint annual meeting in the Philly hotel where Renfrew is speaking, his public talk has a chance of drawing a professionally interested crowd. He’s also scheduled to speak Jan. 15 at the City University of New York on ‘Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: A Time for Clarity.’

Two years ago, having simmered in a stew of controversy for owning ancient Greek and Roman works of questionable provenance, the Getty Museum announced that it would no longer collect pieces if there was doubt about whether they’d left their nations of origin before Nov. 17, 1970. That’s when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization adopted rules to fight the illicit antiquities trade.

Seven months ago, the Assn. of Art Museum Directors followed suit, adopting 1970 as a final date of departure for ancient items. For both the Getty and the AAMD, more recent finds are non-kosher for collecting unless they have crossed national borders with approval from their country of origin.


Harold Holzer, the Metropolitan Museum’s spokesman, could not be reached Wednesday. In 2006, when the Getty tightened its requirements, he told The Times that the huge New York museum was not considering a change in its policy, which allowed acquisitions of ancient artworks so long as there was no proof of impropriety, and a documented record of ownership over the previous 10 years. Of the Getty’s decision to use the 1970 U.N. convention as a benchmark, Holzer said, ‘If you choose one date as your watershed date, it doesn’t mean you’re any more vigilant than you were before, and the Met considers itself extremely diligent.’

In recent years, Italian and Greek authorities have successfully sought the return of prized works that landed in foreign museum collections despite questionable provenance. Among them: the Euphronios krater, a painted vase that the Met returned to Italy in January 2008, and 40 disputed works that the Getty agreed in 2007 to return to Italy.

-- Mike Boehm

Photo credits: Renfrew, SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone; Metropolitan, WallyG; Getty, Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times