An Odyssey in Antiquities Ends in Questions at the Getty Museum

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It was a major coup for the museum, and the crowning glory of a curator's career. After years of courting a wealthy New York couple, the J. Paul Getty Museum had outmaneuvered the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other top institutions to capture one of the world's finest private collections of ancient art.

That 1996 acquisition, encompassing more than 300 masterworks of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art collected by Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman, was envisioned as the anchor of a lavish new center for classical art and archaeology planned at the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif. As Marion True, the antiquities curator, later described it, the collection was the center's"greatest opportunity."

Today, just three months before the villa's grand reopening, that collection seems less like a coup than a disaster, a symbol of cultural plunder and back-door trafficking that has tarnished the reputation of the world's richest museum.

Ms. True, who resigned from the Getty this month over a separate ethics issue, faces trial in Rome on Nov. 16 on criminal charges of conspiring with two art dealers to acquire millions of dollars' worth of looted antiquities. Among those identified in the indictment are 12 objects from the Fleischman collection, including several prominently displayed in the new Malibu galleries.

Italian investigators argue that the Fleischman gift gave Ms. True the means to acquire looted antiquities through a reputable owner, exploiting a loophole in museum ethics guidelines that she had helped draft.

Rather than basking in their moment of glory, the museum and its parent, the nonprofit J. Paul Getty Trust, now face an exodus of high-level staff members and a barrage of questions about their ethics policies and management.

Adding to the pressure, The Los Angeles Times, in articles citing hundreds of pages of leaked Getty documents, has reported that top Getty officials had strong indications by the mid-1980's that the museum was acquiring dubious antiquities; has detailed the outsize expense account of the Getty Trust's powerful president, Barry Munitz; and has investigated the sale of Getty property to one of his friends.

For the Italians, the indictment of Ms. True signals a readiness to use their judiciary's full artillery to pursue grievances against American museums."We have to do what we can," said Maurizio Fiorilli, a lawyer representing the Italian Culture Ministry."We're dealing with people who have stolen pieces that belong to Italy's cultural heritage - and they paid a lot of money to get them."

It is an ominous precedent for big museums with recent acquisitions of Greek and Roman art, especially those that bought objects from the dealers implicated in the indictment. Many are watching the case nervously.

"It would certainly be troubling," said Mary Sue Sweeney Price, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors,"if the notion of bringing Americans to trial in various foreign countries becomes a way of adjudicating cultural property disagreements." [Read More]

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