Beleaguered Member of the Getty Trust’s Board Resigns
Barbara Fleischman, the New York art collector who with her husband donated and sold more than 300 prized antiquities to the Getty Museum in 1996 and then quietly made a personal loan to the curator who arranged the deal, resigned from the Getty board Wednesday.
Her move comes nine weeks after Getty Trust officials revealed the loan, which was to then-antiquities curator Marion True, and called it an obvious conflict of interest, sparking calls for Fleischman’s resignation.
Instead, she hung on as the trust prepared to unveil the lavishly renovated Getty Villa, an antiquities museum that showcases the donations and largesse of the Fleischmans.
But Wednesday, just three days before the grand opening, she relented and left the board.
Neither she nor Getty officials gave a reason for the departure.
“Her behavior is certainly questionable, and it could stain the reputation of the institution,” said Warren Bennis, a USC business professor and management expert.
“I have been expecting it,” said Selma Holo, director of USC’s International Museum Institute. “From an optimistic perspective, I believe this could be interpreted as a signal that the Getty leadership, from the top down, will now be beyond any possible reproach.”
Long before revelation of the loan, the gift and sale to the Getty by Fleischman and her husband, Lawrence, who died in 1997, had sent ripples through the art world. Landing their collection, widely considered one of the best in the world, was a coup for the Getty.
But the acquisition also sparked a debate over the hand-in-glove relationship between museums on the one hand and, on the other, dealers with access to items that lacked documented ownership histories and probably had been looted from archeological sites and illegally exported.
The Fleischmans sold more than 30 Greek and Roman artifacts to the Getty for $20 million and donated about 300 more with an estimated value of $40 million. The couple had acquired many of their items through dealers Giacomo Medici, who was convicted last year of trafficking in looted art, and Robert E. Hecht Jr., who is now on trial in Italy with former Getty curator True on similar charges.
“We were absolute innocents,” Fleischman told The Times last year. “We thought we were buying it from legitimate dealers. Looking back at it, maybe it was naive.”
In 1999, the Getty returned three items from the Fleischman collection to Italy after an archeological publication identified one of them as having come from an archeological site in the south of that country.
The debate over possibly looted artifacts at the Getty intensified last year as Italian authorities moved to prosecute True, who spent two decades acquiring antiquities for the Getty before her resignation last fall.
Italian prosecutors have argued that the Getty should return 42 items, including about a dozen that came from the Fleischmans. Getty leaders have denied wrongdoing and said the museum has never knowingly purchased looted art.
Barbara Fleischman joined the trust’s board in 2000 and served on the Villa Council, a group of donors dedicated to the renovation of the Getty Villa as a museum specializing in antiquities. When the villa reopens Saturday, visitors will find the Fleischman name on the new outdoor theater. Many of the 1,200 artifacts in the villa came from the couple’s collection.
Yet in recent months, Barbara Fleischman’s continued connection to the museum has made many uncomfortable.
In November, The Times reported that then-curator True had borrowed about $400,000 from the Fleischmans within weeks of the couple’s 1996 agreement to sell and donate their antiquities collection. True then used the Fleischman loan to repay money she had borrowed to buy a Greek vacation home from an antiquities dealer with whom she was also conducting business on the Getty’s behalf.
Getty officials have said that neither Fleischman nor True disclosed the loan until October.
“Of course we think it’s a conflict,” said Getty Trust Chairman John Biggs at the time. “I think everybody’s uncomfortable with it, but we’re not sure where to go from here.”
Since then, attorney Ronald Olson has advanced in his Getty-commissioned examination of the trust’s finances and antiquities acquisitions, but no findings or actions have been made public. On Wednesday, Olson declined to comment on Fleischman and said he still has months of fact-finding ahead.
“It’s a set of issues that require our analysis of everything [the] Getty knew and knows about the provenance of its antiquities,” he said, “and it requires assessing what others know and probably gathering some expertise from third parties. And in the end, my guess is we’re going to have shades of gray, not black and white.”
Fleischman and several Getty board members did not return phone calls Wednesday. In statements, Biggs lauded Fleischman’s “generous and tireless” support for the museum, and she, giving no reason for leaving, praised the “splendid and significant” work of Getty staffers.
“Board members are emblematic of the integrity and the mission of the institution,” said USC’s Bennis. Given the conflict of interest involved, “I don’t think [her decision to resign] is something a board member should have to ponder long about.”
Times staff writer Jason Felch contributed to this report.