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Getty Had Signs It Was Acquiring Possibly Looted Art, Documents Show

Museum attorneys say half the masterpieces in its antiquities collection can be traced to suspect dealers. Italy seeks return of 42 items.

September 25, 2005|Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writers

Attorneys for the J. Paul Getty Museum have determined that half the masterpieces in its antiquities collection were purchased from dealers now under investigation for allegedly selling artifacts looted from ruins in Italy.

Italian authorities have identified dozens of objects in the Getty collection as looted, including ancient urns, vases and a 5-foot marble statue of Apollo.

The Italians have Polaroid photographs seized from a dealer's warehouse in Switzerland that show Getty artifacts in an unrestored state, some encrusted with dirt -- soon after they were dug from the ground, Italians officials say.

In response to the Italian investigation, Getty lawyers combed through the museum's files and questioned staff members over several months in 2001, trying to assess the legal exposure of the world's richest art institution.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 199 words Type of Material: Correction
Getty antiquities -- A Page 1 article on Sept. 25 reported on allegations by Italian officials that some items in the antiquities collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum had been looted from Italian archeological sites. The article quoted from notes made in 1996 by the museum's then-general counsel, summarizing a conversation she had with Deborah Gribbon about the acquisition of antiquities. The article identified Gribbon as the museum's director, but she was deputy director at the time. The article also said Gribbon had no comment on the notes. Gribbon says she was not asked to comment on that aspect of the article and that she has no memory of the conversation.Gribbon has also taken issue with The Times' account of how the Getty acquired three antiquities now identified by Italian officials as having been looted. The article said Getty officials learned from a 1985 memo that three objects they were acquiring might have been illegally excavated in Italy but went ahead with the $10.2-million acquisition anyway. Gribbon maintains that the acquisition had been completed before receipt of the memo. She said Getty officials had no indication before the acquisition that the items might have been illegally excavated.

The Times recently obtained hundreds of pages of Getty records, some of them related to the museum's internal review.

Those documents show that Getty officials had information as early as 1985 that three of their principal suppliers were selling objects that probably had been looted and that the museum continued to buy from them anyway.

In correspondence with the Getty, the dealers made frank, almost casual references to ancient sites from which artifacts had been excavated, apparently in violation of Italian law, the records show. The Getty's outside attorney considered the letters "troublesome" and advised the museum not to turn them over to Italian authorities.

Although Italy is seeking the return of 42 objects, the Getty's lawyers did their own assessment and determined that the museum had purchased 82 artworks from dealers and galleries under investigation by the Italians.

They include 54 of the 104 ancient artworks that the Getty has identified as masterpieces.

The internal Getty documents include memos, purchase agreements, correspondence and other records going back 20 years. They paint a picture of a young, aggressive institution determined to build a world-class collection as governments were placing tight restrictions on the antiquities trade.

Among the findings:

* A 1985 memo shows that Getty officials learned from dealer Giacomo Medici that three objects the museum was acquiring had been taken from ruins near Naples decades after Italian law made it illegal. The Getty completed the $10.2-million acquisition anyway.

* An acting curator accused the Getty in a 1986 resignation letter of turning a blind eye to problems in the antiquities department. With eerie prescience, he said the museum's "curatorial avarice" would someday lead to an external investigation and demands from a foreign government for the return of looted artifacts.

* In 1987, Harold Williams, then chief executive of the Getty Trust, and John Walsh, then director of the museum, discussed the "prevailing assumption" that antiquities with no documented ownership had probably been looted, according to Walsh's handwritten notes. Williams referred to one of the Getty's main dealers, Robin Symes, as a "fence," according to the notes, and asked his staff: "Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?"

Williams and Walsh say they were speaking hypothetically and that the museum never knowingly bought looted artworks.

* In correspondence with Marion True, the Getty's curator of antiquities, Medici and another dealer, Robert E. Hecht Jr., described artifacts they were offering for sale in terms that suggested they were illegally excavated. In one letter, Hecht told True that an ancient urn was being sought by Italian police. The Getty later purchased the object.

* In 1993, the Getty bought an ancient gold funerary wreath despite True's initial misgivings that the piece was "too dangerous" to acquire. The Getty later received a copy of an Interpol cable describing the item as having an "illicit origin."

Italian authorities have charged True, Hecht and Medici with conspiring to traffic in looted antiquities. Medici was convicted last year and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He has remained free while he appeals.

The trial for True and Hecht began in July and is scheduled to resume in November in Rome.

Medici, Hecht and Symes deny knowingly selling looted art.

The Italian legal offensive poses a threat to one of the Getty's most important collections as the museum prepares to reopen the Getty Villa in Malibu as a showcase for antiquities after a six-year, $275-million renovation.

True and her attorneys declined to comment for this article, beyond asserting her innocence.

In a statement, the Getty said Friday that it had "never knowingly acquired an object that had been illegally excavated or exported.... "

Although dealers under investigation "have been discredited," the Getty statement said, that "does not mean that any object acquired from one of them was illegally excavated or exported."

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