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Just say no to plunder

State of the Art

October 01, 2005

THE ILLICIT TRADE IN ART and antiquities has often been compared to trafficking in drugs or guns. Both trades are international in scope, require a sophisticated smuggling operation and are driven by demand in wealthy nations. But the analogy ends there.

Art enriches society. Furthermore, the vast majority of U.S. and European museums are respectable institutions run by conscientious professionals who do their best to act responsibly under what are often challenging circumstances. But the best intentions, as recent revelations about the Getty Museum illustrate, are no protection against questionable or even criminal behavior. The Getty should not merely take a stand against smuggling; it should return any illgotten parts of its collection.

The Getty's curator of antiquities is on trial in Italy for conspiring to traffic in looted art. Times reporters Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, reviewing hundreds of records from the museum, documented Sunday that half of the masterpieces in the Getty's antiquities collection were purchased from dealers suspected of looting. Their investigation also revealed a disturbingly wide gulf between the Getty's standards and practices.

For two decades, the Getty has deplored the plundering of art, lecturing to anyone who will listen on the ethics and legalities of collecting ancient art, and revising its own acquisition policies to make them stronger. The museum's former director described its basic stance: "Nothing would justify buying an object that we knew or strongly suspected was stolen."

Yet one internal memo shows that the Getty paid $10.2 million for three objects dug from ruins near Naples decades after Italian law had made it illegal to do so. Another memo showed that the Getty had acquired more than 300 antiquities from a private collection without a documented ownership history -- eight months after unveiling a revised acquisition policy that pledged the museum would only buy items that had been published in catalogs or journals before 1995 or were part of "established and well-documented" collections.

It is easy enough to ask that the Getty abide by its own rules. But it also is worth pointing out that the purpose of those rules is not simply to protect the Getty but to protect the cultural heritage of societies that have long since departed this world.

The plundering of art, which has been practiced for thousands of years, has its defenders. There are some who justify holding ancient treasures such as the Elgin Marbles, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the so-called Pergamon Altar at, respectively, the British Museum, the Louvre and Berlin's Pergamon Museum, saying they are better protected and taken care of there. Yet archeologists and historians argue that ancient works of art are best understood in their original context whenever possible.

In the United States, it must be said, the Getty is not the only museum entangled in this kind of controversy. Other great U.S. museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Cleveland Museum of Art, also have been accused of housing looted treasures.

One could reasonably argue that before 1970, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization approved a convention that called on governments to make it illegal to "import, export or transfer ownership" of cultural property without permission from the country of origin, such looting was at least legally excusable. And at least until 1983, when the U.S. ratified the UNESCO convention, U.S. museums were not legally bound by it.

Yet the looting continues, with the Getty's experience as the most prominent recent example of a museum failing to live up to its ideals. The first step is for the Getty to return the pieces it cannot prove were acquired legitimately. It also should adopt and enforce a clear, unequivocal acquisitions policy that it will not buy, accept or receive on loan any item illegally removed from its country of origin since 1970, when UNESCO adopted its convention.

The looting of ancient art is a moral crime. As an institution devoted to the study of ancient civilizations, the Getty should play no part in a practice that limits our ability to understand both our heritage and who we are today.

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