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Caution: Rembrandts, Handle With Care : Putting art on view at the Getty is no simple task. A double dose of masterpieces doesn't make it any easier.

February 19, 1995|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

With an annual budget of more than $50 million for the purchase of artworks, the J. Paul Getty Museum adds 100 to 150 pieces to its collection each year. The arrival of yet another new acquisition might seem to be a routine occurrence, but that's not so.

"It's like adding a child to a large family," says Deborah Gribbon, the museum's associate director and chief curator. "You've been through the drill a lot and you love all the children you have, but there's nothing quite like having a new one arrive."

Especially when the "new one" turns out to be twins who share the venerable name of Rembrandt--and the unexpected sibling is bigger and more celebrated than the planned addition.

The public learned of the Getty's latest blessed event on Feb. 1, when the museum announced its purchase of two early paintings by Rembrandt. Among a handful of major works by the 17th-Century Dutch master still in private hands, "Abduction of Europa," a mythological landscape created in 1632, came from the estate of New York collector L.H.P. Klotz; "Daniel and Cyrus Before the Idol Bel," a 1633 interpretation of an Old Testament story, was purchased from British collector Lord St. Germans through a London dealer.

The museum's staff had expected "Daniel" because the Getty had agreed to purchase the small (9 1/4-inch by 11 7/8-inch) work in September and delayed a public announcement until the necessary export license was granted. But the acquisition of "Europa," a 24 1/2-inch by 30 5/16 inch painting loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1983 to 1994, was a surprise to all but a tiny inner circle.

"Usually these things are known within the museum, but we adopted a code of secrecy because we had competitors and we didn't want them to know of our interest," said David Jaffe, the Getty's curator of paintings, who concluded negotiations to buy the rare landscape in mid-January. Experts estimate the combined value of the two paintings at more than $30 million, although the Getty has declined to disclose the price paid for either work.

Gribbon said the double purchase has created an in-house stir, partly because "Rembrandt is such an accessible and human artist, and these are paintings with interesting narratives." Unlike most potential acquisitions, the Rembrandts were not sent to the museum for study while their purchase was under consideration. "When these two paintings arrived, we knew that they were ours," she says. "That added to the excitement."

Anticipating a high degree of public interest in the Rembrandts--and knowing that the paintings would not require extensive conservation work--museum officials have decided to put them on view on Tuesday, three weeks after announcing the purchase.

That might sound like a long time just to hang a couple of paintings, but adding new works to the Getty's collection is an enormously complicated process. In the case of the Rembrandts, curators, conservators, registrars, preparators, educators, photographers and graphic designers all have dropped what they were doing to join a frenzy of behind-the-scenes activity.

"It's a matter of changing everyone's priorities," Gribbon said. "The conservators were already working on things we had scheduled for the galleries. The preparators already had their schedule for what was going to be installed and de-installed. The photographer already had a schedule for the month. That simply had to change so that we can get these paintings up."

The action went into high gear on Jan. 30 when associate curator Dawson Carr hurried up the hill behind the museum to a little white cottage that houses the Public Information Office and handed press officer Lori Starr a draft of a proposed press release.

By the following day, they had fleshed it out and obtained official approval of the document. Late on the afternoon of Jan. 31, while reporters rushed to file their stories, Getty Museum Director John Walsh issued a memo about the Rembrandts to the museum's staff and trustees, to department heads at the J. Paul Getty Trust, which funds the museum, and to his colleagues at other institutions.

The Getty's telephone reservations officers braced for an onslaught. And sure enough, on Feb. 1 they received 135 more calls requesting reservations than the previous day, most of them for Tuesday or later.

*

Even as the news was ricocheting around the art world on Feb. 1, "Europa" was arriving at the museum. "Daniel" wouldn't be flown from London until Feb. 8. Citing security concerns, the Getty declines to reveal any information regarding the transport of its artworks. But, like most museums, the Getty requires that works in transit be accompanied by couriers who are curators or other qualified staff members.

Lesser acquisitions are unpacked in freight-receiving facilities, but the Rembrandts were taken directly to the conservation laboratory and uncrated under the watchful eyes of registrars, conservators and curators.

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