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The Getty's "Watergate"?

Being the wealthiest museum in the world comes at a steep price for the J. Paul Getty Museum. Its every step is scrutinized; its high profile art acquisitions are questioned and second-guessed. Museum troubles---and unfortunately there have been plenty of them recently---are the subject of front page news investigations.

Last Sunday, the L.A. Times published a detailed and especially troubling assessment of the long simmering controversies surrounding the Getty's acquisition of Greek and Roman antiquities. Mr. Getty himself was a passionate collector of Greek and Roman art and from the very beginning his museum's identity was rooted in collecting and presenting the best examples of ancient art that money could buy. For almost a quarter of a century, visitors flocked to the museum's original site in Malibu, with its beautifully kept grounds, surrounding the recreation of an ancient Roman villa.

After being closed for almost eight years for extensive remodeling, the Villa is scheduled to reopen in the coming months as an even more splendid setting for its collection of Greek and Roman art, which many specialists consider one of the strongest and most substantial holdings among the various Getty collections. I was able to sneak into the villa for an early peek almost a year ago, and was duly impressed by what I saw even then. The grounds were still under construction, but the Villa was finished and the collection was in the process of being installed to a most impressive, almost sublime effect. Unfortunately, the upcoming festivities are marred by what might be called the museum's version of the Watergate Scandal. The L.A. Times doesn't specify how it obtained hundreds of pages of Getty records, including the museum's internal reviews, but, considering the long simmering unhappiness within its staff, one shouldn't be surprised that the Getty has its own Deep Throat. For a long time, Italian authorities had requested that the museum provide them with complete documentation detailing the acquisition of a number of questioned artifacts. Now we see that, in spite of its assurances to the contrary, the museum had kept under wraps a number of especially damaging documents, where evidence of a murky background of some the artifacts offered for purchase were discussed by past and present museum directors, attorneys, curators and the Presidents and CEOs of the Getty Trust. Some insiders claim that almost half of the masterpieces in the museum's collection of antiquities were probably acquired illegally.

Italian authorities indicted Getty Antiquities Curator Marion True in conspiracy to acquire artifacts that were illegally excavated in Italy and smuggled out of the country. Among 42 disputed items, there are a number of masterpieces, which hold a place of honor in the museum collection. Museum officials and the curator understandably claim innocence, and remembering that the American justice system is based on the principle of the presumption of innocence, we should not cast stones. The trial is scheduled to begin in Rome in November.

One would hope that the Getty's various legal troubles, including the investigation by the Senate Finance Committee and the California Attorney General into the excessive spending by Getty Trust President Barry Munitz, will not just result only in the scaling back of the festivities surrounding the re-opening of the Getty Villa. The Getty would be much better off by shedding its corporate mentality with its atmosphere of secrecy, and, instead, fully embracing the identity of a scholarly center whose educational goals are achieved with the maximum of transparency.

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