Better late than never at the Getty

MALCOLM BELL III is a professor of art history at the University of Virginia and co-director of U.S. excavations at Morgantina, in Italy.

IN THE CONTROVERSY that has enveloped the J. Paul Getty Museum, we have lost sight of the constructive role the museum’s department of antiquities has played for the last decade under the leadership of Marion True. Despite her clear-headed efforts to reform and cleanse the museum’s policies and procedures, she has now fallen victim to its history, of which she was also a part. In this blending of nobility and error, there is something of classical tragedy.

The Getty’s existing acquisitions policy, due largely to True, excludes the purchase of antiquities unless they are documented by publication before 1995 (the date of the adoption of the policy). Such documentation will not necessarily prove the objects’ legality, but without it they are almost certain to have been recently looted, then laundered by the antiquities market. (One of the positive consequences of the current controversy has been to dramatize the market’s role in the trafficking of illegal artworks.)

The Getty’s acquisitions policy is not perfect. We archeologists would prefer an earlier exclusion date -- say, 1970 (the date of the UNESCO Convention on curbing the illegal trade), or better yet, the dates of legislation protecting “cultural patrimony” in the countries of origin. But as time passes, the Getty’s policy will exclude an ever-greater number of questionable antiquities. It serves as a brake on looting from 1995 forward, and it is the strongest acquisitions policy of any major U.S. museum.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Cleveland Museum of Art and several major university collections (Harvard, Princeton) merely say they will not acquire works that can be proved to have been looted. Because the ownership history of antiquities is often ambiguous, and previously unknown antiquities are likely to have been looted, that is not an adequate policy.


During True’s curatorship, the Getty has also been notably willing to honor claims on specific objects made by their countries of origin, resulting in the return of several important works to Italy. It now seems obvious that the Getty will be considering further claims.

These will presumably be based on clear evidence. One piece the Italian government wants back is the so-called Getty Aphrodite, a cult statue of a veiled goddess that some claim was found at Morgantina, an archeological site in Sicily. As director or co-director of the Morgantina excavations for the last 25 years, I know of no evidence that the Getty goddess was found at the site. This important work should one day be repatriated, but until evidence is produced regarding its “findspot,” I cannot urge its return to Sicily, or even to Italy.

Anyone involved in legitimate archeology in the Mediterranean in the 1970s and 1980s was intensely aware of the museum’s voracious, well-funded appetite for artworks. The effects could be felt in clandestine digging at many archeological sites in Italy and other Mediterranean countries, including Morgantina. The Getty then seemed to be an enemy of scientific research and of the knowledge of ancient history and art that archeology produces. Today, the Getty and True must deal with the consequences of irresponsible acquisitions made many years ago.

Yet it is also high time that a judgment based on reason and fairness be applied to the Getty antiquities department today. By all accounts, the sharp turn taken in 1995 on acquisitions is owed to True, who persuaded her institution to emerge from decades of unethical behavior and to regain respectability.

True showed courage in attending a 1997 international conference on site-looting in Italy, where most of the participants were hostile to her. Boldly challenged by a young Italian archeologist who presented evidence about the provenance in Etruria of an important red-figure cup in the Getty’s collection, True replied forthrightly that she would take the information back to California. Her response made friends for the Getty, and the cup was subsequently returned to Italy.

When the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee (which advises the president on policy) held hearings in 2000 on a bilateral accord with Italy that would block the importation of looted antiquities into the United States, True spoke eloquently in its favor. She was the only representative of a major museum to do so.

At a certain point, Marion True recognized that -- like people -- museums’ intellectual integrity must be based on transparency and honesty. She should be commended for having worked successfully to build the character and reputation of her institution. New York, Boston and Cleveland -- indeed all U.S. museums -- should adopt similarly strong acquisition policies, and the Italian authorities should carefully weigh True’s productive achievements against her museum’s past behavior.