Storm Clouds Gather Over the Getty

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Storm Clouds Gather Over the Getty

The Getty continues to be in the news, but not for the reasons it cares about. Just a week ago, the L.A. Times published a detailed report alleging that numerous items in the museum's collection of Greek and Roman antiquities had been illegally excavated in Italy, smuggled out of the country, and sold to the Getty by shady dealers who falsified the documents about the origins of these artworks. As the result of a prolonged investigation by Italian authorities, some prominent international antiquities dealers were indicted and others were arrested. Consequently, Getty Antiquities Curator Marion True, who acquired a number of such artifacts through these dealers, was indicted by Italian authorities, as well, and her trial is scheduled to begin in November in Rome.

And if that's not enough, on Monday the L.A. Times had on its front page another bombshell, announcing Marion True's resignation for improprieties in obtaining a $400,000 loan to buy a vacation home in the Greek Islands. The initial loan was obtained with the help of a lawyer who was introduced to her by one of the dealers from whom the Getty had been buying ancient artifacts, which was clearly in breach of the museum's policy avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest. According to the L.A. Times, the museum knew about this loan for three years but for reasons unknown, has acted only now. In what's become a pattern, the Getty has declined to comment.

Obviously it's more than a coincidence that on the very day of the announcement of Marion True's resignation, the Associated Press reported that the Getty Museum "will hand over three ancient artworks that are part of a group of artifacts allegedly stolen from Italy." Italian officials are travelling to Los Angeles to receive these artifacts "within the next few days." There's new information reported today by the L.A. Times that the museum came to its own conclusion that these three items have a murky, questionable history of previous ownership and though unrelated to the stolen artifacts allegedly acquired by Marion True, that they should be returned to their country of origin. Obviously the Getty officials intended that this gesture be a sign of good will with the Italian government, but not as an admittance of any wrongdoing. That brings to mind recent corporate financial scandals, where officials would strike a deal paying huge settlements without actually admitting guilt. So far the Italians have accepted the offer, but indicated that it does not in any way change their plans to proceed with the trial of the former Getty curator.

Colleagues of Marion True come to her defense. John Walsh, the former Director of the Getty Museum, sent out a long email detailing what he feels are a number of inaccuracies in the initial report by the L.A. Times on the Getty antiquities. And today's L.A. Times, in a welcome gesture of fairness, published a column by art history professor and archaeologist Malcolm Bell, who writes that it's thanks to the efforts of Marion True that in 1995 the Getty adopted a much more stringent policy of acquiring antiquities compared to other leading American museums. It was also on her watch that the museum returned several important works to Italy.

For a long time now, the Getty has been operating under a cloud of litigation compounded by the numerous sudden resignations of several senior staff members. These latest legal developments demonstrate that the lack of transparency and openness will only continue to hurt the Getty's reputation. The policy of "no comment" clearly doesn't cut it anymore. Let's hope that the newly appointed Getty Museum Director Michael Brand will be able to restore the museum's reputation and affect for the better the corporate mentality of the Getty Trust