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A tale that would fill a ... novella?

There's a lot you might not know about the museum, its holdings and the people behind it.

January 26, 2006|Christopher Reynolds

Building it down to code

Robert Langdon Jr., designer of the Getty Villa, died in 2004. But long before he did, he told The Times in a 1981 interview that the villa had been his toughest project. Construction required 33 permits, he said, and the long reflecting pool in the outer peristyle area had to be dug "exactly 17 7/8 inches deep. If it had been one-eighth of an inch deeper, it would have required a chain-link fence around it and a lifeguard."

Coin of the comic realm

Back in the 5th century BC, one of the most common silver coins in Greece was the tetradrachm (its value: four drachms), and of course the Getty has an example on display. The donor: Lily Tomlin, who is credited with a 1980 contribution of more than a dozen coins in the villa.

He wrote more than checks

J. Paul Getty was so inspired by his antiquities that he didn't just commission the villa. He also wrote a novella, "A Journey From Corinth," in which his Lansdowne Herakles statue plays a key role and the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum (model for the villa) is among the settings.

Don't look for it in the museum bookstore, though. The tale was published in 1955 as part of "Collector's Choice: The Chronicle of an Artistic Odyssey Through Europe," which Getty wrote with Ethel Le Vane. It's a rare book now.

Oh, but some of those checks

In 1971, to be sure he had enough artifacts to fill the villa when it opened as a museum, Getty authorized the purchase of an entire Manhattan antiquities gallery on Madison Avenue.

Breaking up is hard to do

In more than 30 years, no antiquities curator has left the Getty happily. When the Getty Villa opened in 1974, the museum's antiquities curator, hired the year before by Getty himself, was Jiri Frel. Frel was forced to retire in 1984 after disclosures that he had traded inflated appraisals for donated antiquities.

Next came Marion True, who laid plans for the villa's reopening, made controversial acquisitions and retired under pressure last fall after disclosures that she'd arranged a personal loan through a dealer selling artifacts to the Getty.

530 BC, give or take a few

Twenty years ago, long before the current controversy arose over the Getty's antiquity acquisition habits, the arts world was aflutter over the Getty kouros, a newly acquired marble statue of a naked young man that some scholars decried as a fake. All these years later, the case is still open, and the Getty kouros is displayed prominently in the villa, labeled "Greek, circa 530 BC or modern forgery."

Putting a lot of eras into it

The oldest items in the villa date to 6,500 BC; the newest, to AD 400.

OK, it's Malibu adjacent

"Getty Villa Malibu," says the Getty literature. But in fact, the property lies outside the city of Malibu and within Los Angeles city limits, part of the community of Pacific Palisades.

The gift that keeps on getting

In 1976, the year Getty died, his museum's holdings amounted to 9,278 items. As of July, after 29 years of acquisitions fueled by the billions the oil baron left behind, the Getty registrar counts about 44,000 antiquities in the villa (and storage) and 66,000 more items, from paintings to furniture to photographs, on display (and in storage) at the Getty Center in Brentwood, for a grand total of 110,622.


-- Christopher Reynolds

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