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John Walsh : Buying Art for the Getty to Define a National Heritage

November 11, 1990|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is an art critic for The Times. He interviewed John Walsh in the director's Malibu office

As possessions of a ruling class, great works of art were for centuries considered legitimate booty for conquering warriors: To the victor went the spoils. But the modern era, which saw the rise of the nation-state, has fostered a belief that certain works of art rightly belong to a people or a culture as a whole. Disputes among nations over control and ownership of national heritage, or patrimony, are common.

Perhaps the most famous example is the so-called Elgin Marbles. On a diplomatic mission to Constantinople in 1800, Thomas Bruce, 7th earl of Elgin, arranged to bring to England the Parthenon frieze by Phidias and other sculptures from Athens' Acropolis. Their 1806 arrival at London's British Museum created an enormous stir, fueling a classical revival in everything from art to politics and establishing the foundation on which modern culture in Europe and the United States was built.

Greece has long insisted that the sculptures be returned to Athens, where they were made. Great Britain replies that the Elgin Marbles are already in their rightful home, because in that context they helped to shape the modern world. The long-simmering dispute rests on the two most common uses of patrimonial claims: that a collection of art preserves the history of a people; and that a collection of art creates a people's ancestry.

John Walsh is no stranger to the complex legal and ethical questions that swirl around issues of national patrimony. The widely respected director of the youthful J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu is charged with building a collection that both preserves significant examples of Western art and, for Los Angeles and the region, creates a patrimonial legacy. Soft-spoken and circumspect, Walsh routinely weighs claims of foreign nations against masterworks his museum seeks to acquire, and must decide whether to pit his institution's formidable buying power against the possibility of international reproach.

Walsh, 52, has been director of the Getty since 1983, and last year served as president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. A specialist in 17th-Century Dutch painting, he has been curator of European art at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has taught at Columbia and Harvard Universities. A Fulbright graduate fellow at the University of Leyden in the Netherlands and a graduate of Yale, the lanky Washington native is married and the father of three.

Question: Several years ago, the Getty Museum had an opportunity to acquire a great German manuscript at auction, but deferred to patrimonial claims on the part of a German state. How did you reach that decision?

Answer: Well, that was the case of the so-called Gospels of Henry the Lion. It was created in the Middle Ages for a great prince, and was one of the most important manuscripts ever made--the finest and most sumptuous manuscript of its kind, just of tremendous importance to the region of Saxony. It had gotten out of Germany--evidently under dubious circumstances--and was coming up for auction. We had just bought the Ludwig Collection (of 144 medieval manuscripts), and were looking for the best manuscripts that could be found on the market. And here it was, free and clear--or arguably free and clear--and simply the best thing we'd have to buy in a long time. We resolved to buy it.

The fact that the manuscript had gotten out of Germany was considered right from the beginning a real disaster, a terrible thing, because if it were back in Germany, it would be one of the greatest of all national treasures. The Germans were beginning to mount a campaign to buy it somehow. The campaign was put in the hands of the retired president of Deutschesbank--one of Adenauer's collaborators in the rebuilding of Germany, a very powerful man who managed to put together a whole consortium of people with money for a strong bid. Collections were even being taken in churches.

We thought very hard about whether we wanted to go to the auction and duel with a German consortium that was trying to bring back a national treasure. Their effort was exactly what we would do if we were in their position, and we were a very young museum with a long future, and a lot of dealings with Germany in the future--we hoped. We were not interested in having that shoot-out, under the television lights. We came quietly to the Germans, offered to be useful to them if we could be, instead of going against them. And I think we were useful to them. The dealer who would have acted for us in the end acted for them.

Q: So everyone's happy?

A: Well, I'm still unhappy we don't have the manuscript.

Q: Some say that if a fair price is negotiated, any art ought to be available for sale to anyone. Can international disputes over patrimony be settled strictly through free-market principles?

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