Treasures from Russia under the California Sun

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Now that the Getty Museum has wisely chosen to undertake the painful but inevitable step of placating the Italian authorities by sending back to Italy forty antiquities from the museum's collection, it's a good time to reflect on this controversy and try to make sense of it all. I couldn't agree more with the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times (August 6, 2007) stating that "Legally, the return of the artworks is the right thing to do...International treaties left Getty executives with little choice. Whether it's fair is another matter."

Thinking about these forty ancient artworks being returned to Italy, I suspect that for a short while, the Italian press and public will pay attention to them, and after that, inevitably, interest will wane and the artworks will disappear from the limelight. No doubt that in a few years you will not be able to find most of these artifacts displayed prominently in any of the Italian museums. They will likely be moved to museum storage facilities, joining hundreds of thousands, if not millions of other Greek and Roman artifacts hidden there. This is the classic case of an embarrassment of riches. Since the Renaissance, when the collecting of antiquities became fashionable, the Italian soil has yielded innumerable treasures of ancient art. What our Italian friends are not eager to acknowledge is their unique responsibility to make all these treasures available to the national and international public, instead of simply sitting on them, so to speak.

With all the cries about cultural patrimony, which is so last century, all of us would be much better off embracing a more enlightened attitude: great works of art belong to everyone. And though, technically, private individuals and national museums have legal rights of ownership, they have a much greater responsibility as the custodians of these treasures for the whole of humanity. Here, at the Getty Museum, these forty artifacts were afforded a place of pride and seen by millions of visitors. It's definitely not going to be the same for them in Italy, and that makes me sad. However, one good thing that comes from all this controversy is the agreement with Italian authorities to loan a number of important ancient artworks to the Getty for an extended period of time.

Now that the whole subject of antiquities acquisition is so treacherous, there is a good chance that the Getty will more often use its significant resources to organize ambitious exhibitions that few other institutions can afford. Case in point: the current exhibition at the Getty Villa of Greek art from the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Since the sixth century BC, Greeks established settlements on the northern shores of the Black Sea, and the Hermitage has an amazing collection of artifacts excavated there in the last two hundred years by Russian archeologists. In two weeks these intricate gold and silver chalices, necklaces and earrings will be sent home, along with equally exquisite black lacquered ceramic vessels and imposing, life size marble sculptures. Working at the Hermitage in the 1970s, I was intimately familiar with most of these artifacts, but now, seeing them again, beautifully installed here at the Getty Villa, I have to admit that under the California sun, these unique works of art look even more magnificent than I remember them from many years ago.

Greeks on the Black Sea: Ancient Art from the Hermitage
On view at the Getty Villa through September 3, 2007

Who needs that old stuff anyway?
Dan Turner, LA Times
August 6, 2007