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Getty studies its antiquities

In the wake of a scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum is trying to verify the ownership histories of 45,000 antiquities and publish the results in the museum’s online collections database.

The study, part of the museum’s efforts to be more transparent about the origins of ancient art in its collection, began last summer, said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

“In this effort, and in all our work, when we identify objects that warrant further discussion and research, we conduct the necessary research to determine whether an item should be returned,” Hartwig said in a statement to The Times.

The review is likely to reveal that problems in the Getty’s collection go far deeper than the nearly 50 looted objects returned since 2007 , according to Getty records and interviews with antiquity dealers and former museum officials.

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Hundreds of objects still in the collection were acquired with false ownership histories aimed at disguising their origins in the illicit antiquities trade, records and interviews show.

The depth of its problem was underscored in November, when the Getty published a catalog of 56 carved ambers, objects that the ancient Greeks and Etruscans used in amulets for the magical properties they were believed to possess.

At first look, “Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum” represents the museum at its finest -- decades of scholarship published online in an illustrated catalog that engages the public in a rarely studied artifact of the ancient world.

But records -- including internal Getty files -- show that the ambers were almost certainly looted from tombs in northern Italy.

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The relics passed through the smuggling network of Giacomo Medici, who has been convicted in Italy of trafficking in illegally excavated artifacts. Once in the United States, they were donated to the Getty as part of a tax fraud scheme that nearly brought the institution to its knees in the 1980s.

The catalog is silent on this history, which a Getty spokesman says the museum was not aware of at the time, but it does acknowledge the consequences. Because nothing is known of the context in which the ambers were found, little can be definitively concluded about their meaning to their ancient owners.

“Were they purchases, part of a dowry, heirlooms, or other kinds of gifts?” writes Faya Causey, author of the catalog. “Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to whether the ambers were actually possessions of the people with whom they were buried, how the objects were acquired, and in which cultic or other activity they played a part.”

The ambers capture the dilemma that the Getty faces today. Having largely abandoned the purchase of ancient art, it is using its unparalleled resources to restore meaning to objects whose history it had a hand in destroying.

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The bulk of the Getty’s collection of ancient amber was donated between 1976 and ’83 by Gordon McLendon, a Texas radio man who pioneered the Top 40 format on AM radio. McLendon was not known as an art collector. How did he come to possess a world-class collection of ancient amber? And why did he donate it to a museum so wealthy it had no need of donations?

The answers are in Getty documents and notes collected by Arthur Houghton, a former associate curator for antiquities at the Getty who initiated an internal investigation into the ambers soon after his arrival in 1983. What Houghton found -- and Getty lawyers later confirmed -- was that McLendon was part of a decade-long looting and tax fraud scheme being run out of the Getty’s antiquities department.

The scheme was orchestrated by Getty antiquities curator Jiri Frel, with help from Bruce McNall, then a Los Angeles antiquities dealer, and Robert E. Hecht, McNall’s supplier. In the late 1970s, the three devised a way to build the Getty’s collection while moving the less collectible inventory in McNall’s Rodeo Drive antiquities gallery.

Hecht supplied thousands of recently looted antiquities from Italy, Turkey and Greece, records and interviews show. Frel forged appraisals that grossly inflated their value, and McNall found wealthy friends to donate them to the Getty in exchange for fraudulent tax write-offs.

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Over a decade, the Getty received some 6,000 donations from more than 100 donors whose gifts were valued at nearly $15 million, tax records show. More than 900 objects were donated by McLendon, including the ancient ambers.

In the late 1970s, McNall had alerted McLendon that the Getty was interested in acquiring a group of ambers owned by a Swiss man named Fritz Burki.

Burki, a former university janitor turned antiquities restorer, has told Italian prosecutors that he served as a “straw man” for sales of looted objects being fenced by Hecht and his Italian supplier, convicted trafficker Giacomo Medici. Burki’s name is associated with hundreds of looted objects that have since been returned to Italy, including several from the Getty’s collection.

“Nothing that came from Burki was not recently excavated,” said McNall in an interview this week. “I believe these things are probably from Medici.” McNall, who went on to own the L.A. Kings, was never prosecuted for his role in the scheme but was convicted in 1994 of an unrelated bank fraud.

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McLendon paid Burki about $20,000 for the ambers, but was reimbursed for part of that amount, the records show. Frel forged an appraisal that put the value of the ambers at more than $20 million, giving McLendon an inflated tax write-off when he donated the ambers to the Getty.

McLendon had used the same process to donate hundreds of objects to the Getty. But in 1983, the IRS challenged the amber appraisal and threatened McLendon with tax fraud charges. He was forced to pay a $2.1-million settlement to the government, records show.

Getty officials learned of the IRS investigation and asked the Getty’s outside counsel to conduct an internal investigation into the ambers and several other of Frel’s “irregularities.”

In a confidential report to Getty CEO Harold Williams in May 1984, the attorney concluded that the McLendon donations were part of a far larger problem. Frel had admitted to forging 15 to 25 donation appraisals a year for five years. Ninety percent of those questioned by the IRS had “grossly, excessively overstated the true market value of the items,” the report stated.

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If the IRS learned of the scheme, Frel and the Getty faced possible criminal charges of conspiracy to commit tax fraud, something that could have led, among other things, to the revocation of the Getty’s tax-exempt status.

The Getty’s counsel suggested that the documents “relating to Frel’s corruption” be removed from the Getty so they couldn’t be subpoenaed. Soon after, Frel abruptly moved to Europe, where he remained on the Getty payroll for several years. He died in 2006.

In the end, the cover-up worked: The IRS investigation never caught on to the broader tax fraud scheme, and the thousands of objects donated to the Getty in those years remain in the collection.

A Getty spokesman said that everything the museum knew about the ambers’ origins was in the catalog. But Faya Causey, the author of the catalog, is personally acquainted with how they got to the Getty.

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At the time the ambers were donated to the Getty, Causey was married to Frel. She and several family members are listed as the donors of antiquities that entered the museum during those years. Notes by Houghton, the Getty curator who investigated the case, say Causey personally smuggled at least one object into the country for the Getty, a claim she has denied.

Causey, now head of academic programs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., did not return several calls seeking comment.

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jason.felch@latimes.com

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