Getting it right at the Getty

THOMAS HOVING was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977 and a curator from 1959 to 1966.

A COUPLE of months ago, I submitted my application to become the interim director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. I suggested a tenure of just 18 months because all I had in mind was reforming its troubled antiquities division.

I thought I knew how to do it because I've been a bad boy and a good boy in the antiquities game. My track record as a curator and then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York went from being a rabid collector, willing to grab anything even if I suspected it had been smuggled, to a reformer who helped draft the landmark 1970 UNESCO convention against the worldwide smuggling of cultural patrimony. (The U.S. signed on to the convention in 1983.)

Now the Getty clearly needs reform. Antiquities curator Marion True is under indictment in Italy for allegedly conspiring to traffic in looted artworks, and the museum's lawyers figure that about half of its top 100 ancient artworks were obtained from dealers now under investigation in Italy.

My offer was pleasantly turned down. The Getty already had an interim director; it was shopping for someone to take the job full time. Now that that person -- the resolute (we hope) Michael Brand -- is onboard, I'd like to pass along to him what I was planning to do in my first day on the job.

I'd start settling with the Italians, even though the Getty is proclaiming its innocence and supporting True, whose trial is coming up in November. The Getty Trust has hired expensive lawyers, and they ought to be able to cut the proper deal.

Part of that deal should be a resolution, passed by the Getty board of directors, pledging never to buy, or receive as a gift or bequest, any antiquity unless its ownership record -- its provenance -- is squeaky clean. To its credit, the Getty has had versions of this policy in place, but none worded this strongly. Fact is, unless an ancient Greek or Roman artifact can be proved to have been bought by Lord So-and-So on his grand tour in the mid-18th century and shipped to London, it has to have been excavated illegally and smuggled out of Italy (or Turkey or Croatia). Laws in Italy protecting its cultural patrimony stretch back to the 1930s and earlier.

That clean provenance can't be a vague notation, and simply publishing that an antiquity has an "unknown provenance" doesn't cut it either. It may not be possible to prove that a piece with little or no documentation was stolen, but that's not the same thing as proving that it's legal.

The Italian authorities have stated that they want to stop future illegal acquisitions of their patrimony. But they have also asked that 42 objects in the Getty Museum's possession be returned. That's the total so far. If they see a photograph of a Roman treasure in the Getty paired with a photo of the identical work seized from a known Italian smuggler, they may begin to ask for more. The Getty should quickly cut them off at the pass.

For starters, the Getty should immediately return at least one major piece that the Italians have identified as questionable. At the top on my list would be the gargantuan (and oddly clunky, I think) statue of Aphrodite that the latest evidence indicates was found sometime before 1986 by tombaroli -- looters -- in what was ancient Morgantina in Sicily (near the sleepy town of Aidone). It made its way into the hands of dealer Robin Symes (whose name comes up more than once in questionable Getty purchases) and then for $18 million to the Getty, thanks to True.

Another piece that should be sent back -- but only as a special two-year goodwill loan -- is the famous 4th-3rd century BC sculpture of a male athlete, known as the Getty bronze.

As I reported in a piece on ABC's "20/20" in 1979, it was found by a fishing boat crew from Fano, Italy. It was shipped, at one point, to South America -- identified as concrete -- and offered by an antiquities dealer in Europe to oil magnate J. Paul Getty for more than $4 million. Getty worked with me to buy it for less than that, but only if the dealer obtained permission from the Italian government. This didn't happen. After Getty's death, however, the museum acquired the piece. It's not on the Italians' current most-wanted list. According to court records I've seen, the highest court in Italy dismissed charges, on a technicality, that the piece was smuggled.

Still, it would be a good idea for the Getty bronze to be loaned to Italy for two years in exchange for a work of equal importance -- say, one of the two 5th century BC bronze warriors found near Riace, Italy, and now housed in the National Museum of Archeology of Reggio Calabria. Every two years the Getty could loan another of its questionable treasures to an institution in its country of origin in exchange for something totally legitimate.

I would order the publication on the Getty Museum's website of the complete inventory of the antiquities division, including all facts (and horrors) of acquisition -- along with measurements and photographs. I'd suggest that True undertake an exalted new role in research curatorship, and then I'd start the search for a new department head.

And on the second day....

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