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Five Years of the Getty | COMMENTARY

The money's there; where is the desire?

The institution once seemed unbeatable at buying art, but lately it's been letting important works slip away.

December 15, 2002|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

On July 10, the foundations of the Getty Center in Brentwood were severely shaken. Earthquake was not the cause. The falling of an auction hammer in London did the deed.

After 10 quick minutes of furious bidding, Sotheby's chairman Henry Wyndham brought the hammer down on "The Massacre of the Innocents," a tumultuous scene of Herod's soldiers slaughtering babies while their mothers try desperately to save them. The painting had been newly attributed to the 17th century Flemish genius Peter Paul Rubens. An early work, dated about 1610, it was being called a signal painting that announced the emergence of the courtly Baroque era in European art -- easily the most important Old Master picture to come on the open market in a dozen years.

Wyndham asked for an opening bid of 3 million pounds, one-third of Sotheby's published high estimate of the painting's worth. "Six million!" shouted a voice from the room, and the bidding race was on. Eight contestants went after the Rubens. The price rose quickly in million-pound increments, and five suitors were still scrambling as the bid soared past 25 million pounds. A prominent London dealer dropped out at 32 million pounds, a Dutch and American team of dealers passed at 35 million pounds. In the end just two were left.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 13 inches; 483 words Type of Material: Correction
Thomson family -- A commentary in the Dec. 15 Sunday Calendar about the Getty Center's painting collection misidentified the father of Canadian tycoon David Thomson. He is Ken Thomson of Toronto, not Roy Herbert Thomson of England.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 02, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Thomson family -- A Dec. 15 commentary about the Getty Center's painting collection misidentified the father of Canadian tycoon David Thomson. He is Ken Thomson of Toronto, not Roy Herbert Thomson of England.

When Wyndham closed the bidding, the Rubens had fetched 49.5 million pounds -- $76.7 million -- the highest price ever paid at auction for an Old Master painting. The winning bid was placed by Sam Fogg, a Mayfair book dealer, but within days it emerged that he was bidding for a private collector -- 44-year-old Canadian tycoon David Thomson. He'd bought the dramatic work as a present for his father, publishing magnate Roy Herbert Thomson of England. In November the Rubens was promised as a gift to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

It won't, in short, be coming to Los Angeles. For it also quickly emerged that the unsuccessful under-bidder was the J. Paul Getty Museum, which dropped out when the price got to around $63 million. There was no joy in Brentwood. Mighty Getty had struck out.

The museum's failure to capture the coveted prize now hangs over its sun-drenched travertine piazza like an immovable dark cloud. A ray of sunshine poked through the post-Rubens gloom in October, when it was learned the Getty had negotiated the $50-million purchase of what is reportedly the last undisputed Raphael not in a public collection. A tiny private devotional image of the Madonna and Child, less than a foot on a side, the Raphael must still navigate treacherous British export laws before landing on the Pacific shore.

Success with the Raphael will not mitigate the failure with the Rubens, though. The Getty painting collection needs them both -- and more still.

Once upon a time, the Getty was seen as an 800-pound gorilla -- the wealthiest art museum in the world, with the financial clout to buy whatever rare masterpiece it wanted. But no more. As December's fifth anniversary of the opening of the lavish Getty Center approaches, the Rubens episode stands as a marker in the museum's history.

The 5-year-old has spawned other surprises since its debut, both happy and dispiriting. The most refreshing is a nearly unbroken string of first-rate temporary exhibitions. The most startling was the dismantling and reorganization of programs shortly after the opening of the center -- a glittering six-building campus, which was specifically tailored to meet those program needs at a cost of more than a billion dollars.

But the collection is a singular issue. "When the chance comes to make a great acquisition, we will," the Getty Museum's former director, John Walsh, flatly declared in 1983. On July 10 a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose -- but the Getty didn't seize it.

Walsh, since retired, was speaking early in the run-up to building the Getty Center, after the institution's enormous endowment had been secured (it now stands at $4.4 billion) but before an architect had even been selected for the planned Brentwood complex. In one sense he had no choice.

Although the Getty had a small but excellent collection of Greek and Roman antiquities and a large but excellent collection of French decorative arts, its European paintings were mediocre at best, its European sculptures almost nonexistent. Opening an extravagant new complex with the largest, most beautiful suite of galleries devoted to such paltry holdings would have made the museum an international laughingstock.

In another sense, however, Walsh's declaration had little to do with the Getty in particular. It simply spoke to any art museum's core value.

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