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Beautiful Museums, Looted Artifacts
on May 8, 2011
Can it be true? Renowned museum curators knowingly purchased looted artifacts for millions of dollars, then covered their tracks by inventing a "past" for the objects, which had been illegally dug up by locals working for pennies while a few low-life dealers raked in the cash? Were rare and valuable antiquities smuggled into the US without paying customs fees? These nefarious activities are the subject of this book, which focuses on the J. Paul Getty museums in California.
The authors take a journalistic approach to the subject, taking us back to J. Paul Getty himself and the billions of dollars he left as a legacy to establish a foundation for the furtherance of the arts and especially the arts of antiquity. We learn that Getty was a bit of a cheapskate, but the people who controlled his money after his death were not, spending lavishly on multi-million dollar purchases of the best of the best. The book takes us through the years of curators Jiri Frel, Douglas Houghton and Marion True.
Frel had no problem buying looted items and making up a past for them. He bought from dealers known to work with looters who made available what their diggers found at sites known to yield ancient objects. These objects could then be smuggled into Switzerland, where the government didn't seem to care, then be moved from there to dealers who made contact with museum curators. Frel also initiated a tax-evading scheme for wealthy patrons who would buy the antiquities and donate them to the Getty, taking a huge (usually with an inflated value) write-off. Frel was finally forced out of his job by Houghton who refused to go along with the scheme.
Houghton did not last long and gave a prophetic warning as he saw his job go to Marion True, who repeatedly spoke out against museums buying unprovenanced items, but did not do as she preached. During her long term as antiquities curator, the museum acquired many fabulous items, including the Aphrodite statue for which the book is named. We follow True's career as she makes friends with Larry and Barbara Fleishman who have a personal collection that is the envy of museums that collect antiquities. We learn of True's cozy relationship with the most notorious of the dealers who work with looted and smuggled items. And we finally learn of actions taken by Italian investigators attempting to reclaim their patrimony. The government wanted museums to give back objects found in Italy but illegally taken out of the country. Many were sold for millions of dollars to museums, especially one very wealthy museum, the Getty.
It turns out that most of the items in the Fleishman collection, which was donated to the Getty upon the death of Larry Fleishman while Barbara Fleishman was made a Board member of the Getty, lacked any credible provenance and had undoubtedly been looted. Italian investigators discovered and ultimately raided a warehouse in Switzerland that yielded up a trove of Polaroid photos of antiquities that had come through that location over many years. These pictures included photos of the Aphrodite in pieces, some with dirt still clinging, which left little doubt that its purported former ownership was fiction. Marion True ended up having to resign her position at the Getty and was indicted on criminal charges in Italy.
The authors tell us that this shabby situation is changing as the world comes to recognize that a country's past history should not be callously treated as a product to be sold to the highest bidder. Looting masks the true history of an object and has always been opposed by archaeologists, but not by art lovers and collectors, who say they appreciate these items for their aesthetic value and should be allowed to own them. Italy has worked out loan programs where museums returning looted items can get loans of objects for temporary display.
My interest in this subject arises partly out of the fact that I have visited both the Getty's original "Roman Villa" museum along the Pacific Highway (this was about 20 years ago) and its new and incredibly fabulous museum on the hill in LA. I was totally impressed by both, but especially the new Getty, which is a building of breathtaking beauty and features gorgeous views of LA. I live in Michigan, so my visits there were vacations. My visit to the new Getty on the hill was a wonderful experience! There was no admission fee and the museum offered every comfort, even free umbrellas in case it rained. I remember the great exhibit of illuminated manuscripts. Every room was full of amazing sights. It is ironic that a museum offering such a fabulous visitor experience had such flawed practices and policies toward acquiring their collection.
But of course the museum was more focused on building its reputation and prestige in the world of museum directors, wealthy collectors and patrons. For that, they needed outstanding, and preferably unique, items of antiquity. California was not where such world-class collections were normally found, but the Getty Board of Directors and the officials they hired set out to change that. It seemed they let this mission get in the ways of ethical considerations.
This book is informative, but the writing is a bit dry, just following the facts without really bringing the scenarios they describe to life. There is no main character, and no conclusion to the saga of Marion True and her legal battles, which apparently continue. The authors feel she took the fall for the whole sordid antiquities business, while others, including the much guiltier Jiri Frel, got away with ignoring international law and the laws of the countries involved, and in the case of Frel, flagrant violation of US tax law.
But out of this mess, perhaps the looting of ancient sites will at least slow, and perhaps the beautiful objects we see and enjoy in museums will have a history, a real and honest history, and will be available for us to see in the US, but remain the property of the country in which they were found.