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Dealers and museums are 'running scared' over looting

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The largest treasure in the J.Paul Getty Museum's collection, a replica of an ancient Roman villa buried by Mount Vesuvius, is just months from reopening, but already it's being covered by a poisonous ash of bad publicity. And some of it might drift over other museums, too.

The Getty Villa in Malibu, which has undergone a six-year, $275 million renovation, will showcase the museum's collection of more than 40,000 antiquities from classical Greece and Rome. But the top Getty official who led the project, antiquities curator Marion True, won't be there for the opening celebrations in January: She had to resign. Worse, she goes on trial in Italy next month on charges she conspired with European dealers to traffic in looted ancient artworks. She and the Getty deny any wrongdoing.

It's an embarrassing comedown for a mighty institution. The Getty has been the envy of the museum world, with access to billions of dollars in trust accounts, the power to dominate art markets and lavish praise for its Richard Meier-designed Getty Center complex, which opened eight years ago in Los Angeles. But now the Getty is under siege: The California attorney general's office is investigating its financial practices. The CEO's lavish spending habits have been exposed to ridicule. Key officials have quit or been forced out.

But it is True's predicament that has alarmed museums, dealers and collectors across the country. This is the first time an American museum official has been charged with a crime for doing what art museums do: Buy art. Buying ancient art, however, has become a risky business. Source countries are pursuing their pilfered patrimony in the courts, U.S. authorities are backing them, and fewer legal objects are on the market than there were when many museums were founded 100 years ago.

Moreover, True widely is viewed as a zealous reformer against trafficking, who persuaded the Getty in 1995 to change its policies to guard against buying looted art. Now she may be paying the price for the Getty's prior policies when the young museum rushed to build a world-class collection.

"The Getty got caught when attitudes and laws changed, and they found their way of doing business was no longer acceptable, ethically or legally," says Bill Pearlstein, a New York lawyer who represents private collectors and antiquities dealers in arguing against efforts to curtail or shut down the antiquities trade.

But as glum museum officials acknowledge, the case extends beyond the Getty, even to museums that don't collect antiquities.

"This could tar and feather everybody," says Mary Sue Sweeney Price, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and director of the Newark Museum.

Ed Able, CEO of the American Association of Museums, says museums are at the top of the list in terms of public trust. "But that can easily be destroyed if we find some operating illegally or unethically," he says.

There also is concern that more institutions may be targeted. The Italians say they hope to negotiate with other American museums to return objects they believe were looted. "We don't want to go in front of a court. We prefer a gentleman's agreement," says Maurizio Fiorilli, lawyer for the Italian culture minister.

But it gets worse. The Los Angeles Times has just published an investigation, based on internal Getty records, that shows True and other Getty officials long suspected that their suppliers probably were selling looted antiquities but bought them anyway.

The Getty insists it has never knowingly acquired looted art, but the museum has returned disputed artworks to Italy before and announced it is returning three more next month. Dozens remain in dispute, including the Getty's celebrated statue of Aphrodite.

Meanwhile, True resigned after the Los Angeles Times revealed she obtained a personal loan with help from one of the Getty's suppliers to buy a Greek villa. The Getty said she violated museum ethics policies.

How did it come to this? The legal landscape for antiquities began changing decades ago when source countries started adopting cultural patrimony laws that treat illicitly excavated antiquities as stolen goods. The landmark 1970 UNESCO convention against worldwide smuggling of art and cultural patrimony was supposed to stop the illegal trade, but it hasn't worked out that way.

Archaeologists and historians say looting robs antiquities of their context and thus their value to science and history; they blame the marketplace for encouraging looting. Buyers -- museums, collectors and dealers -- say not all antiquities have been looted; they blame looting on lax law enforcement. Source countries should pursue the looters, "not ask the U.S. to be their policeman long after the fact," says Kate Fitz Gibbon, a Santa Fe gallery owner and editor of a book on cultural property and the law.

Tom Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and a self-described "bad boy" turned reformer in the antiquities game, says the Getty had it coming after years of allegedly reckless acquisitions.

"The Getty is so rich. When you have the amount of money they have, you get into a bubble, and you think nothing and no one can touch you," he says.

Able says U.S. museums may have misbehaved in the remote past but have long acknowledged the ethical and legal risks of looted art. A recent court case drove home the point: In 2003, a prominent New York dealer, Frederick Schultz, was convicted under U.S. law for conspiring to deal in looted Egyptian antiquities.

The Getty is in trouble because "the Italians finally have a case they can prosecute with hard evidence," says Able, including photos seized from a dealer's Swiss warehouse that reportedly show some antiquities still encrusted with dirt. "They're firing a shot across the bow, not so much for museums as for the private collectors."

Jane Waldbaum, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, which has long campaigned against trafficking in looted art, says museums and dealers "are running scared. The Fred Schultz (conviction) showed them you can go to jail for this stuff."

Museums are more accustomed to thinking of themselves as well-meaning public stewards who acquire antiquities to preserve them for posterity and display them to educate the public. Their critics say some are too focused on collecting at any cost.

"Curators and directors feel their primary mission is to acquire. They build their reputations on that," says Patty Gerstenblith, a trained archaeologist and law professor at DePaul University in Chicago. "Are museums acquiring undocumented objects? Yes, where they think they can get away with it."

Still, even archaeologists are dismayed about the Getty case. Malcolm Bell, of the University of Virginia, says True's situation has the whiff of a Greek tragedy. "The terrible irony is that the person responsible for (reform) is the person most harshly treated."

Dealers and collectors, meanwhile, worry the Getty case will fuel "public prejudice that everything old is stolen," Pearlstein says. "All trade should not be banned just because evidence of stolen materials shows up from time to time."

No matter how the Getty case turns out, museums now will be operating in a more complicated marketplace. Michael Brand, the incoming director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, says in this new era, museums will have to rely more on donations of long-held private collections. They'll have to rediscover artworks they already have but have never displayed, organize more temporary traveling exhibits and arrange more long-term loan agreements with source countries.

"It's not just issues of provenance. There are fewer things to buy," he says. "Now would not be the time to start a museum and think there would be a legal or illegal way to acquire objects."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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