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Who Is Thomas Hoving, and Why Do Some Think He Has a Grudge Against L.A.'s Wealthy Museum?

September 11, 1988|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

On a slow week in mid-May, 1986, a tall, imposing gray-haired man made his way through the hushed galleries and sunny courtyards of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

Peering into the eyepiece of a video camera, he spent hours filming roped-off statues and display cases stocked with antiquities. As curious officials of the museum looked on, the man spoke in stage whispers into a tape recorder, describing in knowing, precise detail each exhibit before him.

For two days, Thomas P. F. Hoving, a man who was once at center stage in the art world as director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art--and is now editor of Connoisseur, a glossy arts magazine devoted to the leisure activities of the rich--stalked the halls of the Getty like an unfettered tourist, museum officials recall. Even when the filming stopped, Hoving pursued uneasy curators for more information about their precious artifacts.

The nervousness Hoving caused during his brief visit was nothing compared with what followed. In the past two years, Hoving has waged a war of words against the world's wealthiest museum. Writing of scandals, fakes and "broken trust," Hoving and his staff have questioned the Getty's ethics, the authenticity of some of its most valued exhibits, the manner in which the museum acquires its prizes and the character and experience of its director, John Walsh.

Last month, Hoving accused the museum of buying a rare Greek statue dating from the 5th Century BC--a bullet-headed figure supposedly of the goddess Aphrodite--that Hoving contended had been illegally dug up and smuggled from an undisclosed Italian archeological site. Hoving himself was quoted in the International Herald Tribune as saying he had tipped off authorities. Interpol, the international police organization, and the Italian government are investigating the allegations.

Many who know Hoving and Walsh say that a series of personal and philosophical clashes between the two when Walsh worked as a curator for Hoving at the Metropolitan museum 14 years ago may play a role in the continuing rancor. But equally important may be the love-hate relationship between the American museum community and Hoving, a complicated man with a reputation for ambition and a taste for the limelight.

Ethical and legal furors have become routine events in business, politics and government. But they often have an exaggerated effect in the insular sphere of art, where objective standards are rare and reputation is all. Although he has tweaked other museums for a variety of misdeeds, Hoving's repeated stings at the image-conscious Getty have left museum directors, art dealers and collectors divided over whether he is accurately exposing the flaws of a powerful museum, or is simply settling old scores.

"To judge his motivations, you would have to have total disclosure under hypnosis," said Dietrich von Bothmer, chairman of the department of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan who has known Hoving for nearly three decades. "I'm not sure that Tom himself could tell you why he is doing what he does."

Though Hoving has been quick to publicize his latest allegations--a full report on them is scheduled for his magazine's October issue--he repeatedly refused requests by The Times for an interview. Walsh, too, declined to respond specifically to Hoving's charges, agreeing only to generally discuss the museum's situation.

Even colleagues in the museum world are reluctant to speak openly of the tangle between the Getty and Hoving. "It's very simple," said the director of one California museum. "The Getty is very powerful and very rich, and Tom Hoving can always decide to find himself a new target. The last place I want to be is caught in their cross fire."

For all its clout, the Getty has seemed on the defensive recently, its officials privately rattled by Hoving's broadsides but publicly unwilling "to respond because it might give him credibility," as one official said.

On a recent vacation in New York's Adirondacks, John Walsh found himself so besieged by calls from the Italian press--after Hoving's first allegations about the Aphrodite--that he had to borrow a fax machine from a vacationing neighbor to reply.

"It's part of the price of the job," Walsh, 50, says wearily. Puffing on a cigar, Walsh, an owlish man with a slightly rumpled look, chooses his words carefully, almost painfully. On top of an antique oak bureau in his Malibu office he keeps a row of paper predictions saved from Chinese fortune cookies. One reads: "Everything is not yet lost." Another: "Soon you will be sitting on top of the world."

"My impression is that a lot of people watch big institutions like the Getty the way they watch cars in Indianapolis," Walsh says. "Not just to see how fast they go, but also how hard they hit the wall."

It is as close as he will come to a public utterance on Hoving, his former boss.

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