Under growing international scrutiny for buying potentially looted antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum has dramatically tightened its acquisition standards.
The move, announced Thursday, is designed to screen out any item whose history since 1970 is murky. In doing so, two experts said, the Getty is essentially taking responsibility for making sure an item's recent history is clean, instead of challenging critics to prove it's dirty.
The move is not retroactive -- if it were, the museum would have to relinquish scores of ancient items from its galleries and storerooms -- but some authorities see it as a potential turning point in a global confrontation between curators and archeologists over the way museums do business.
"It's a rethinking of the whole issue of the burden of proof," said Malcolm Bell III, a University of Virginia archeology professor and co-director of U.S. excavations in Morgantina, Italy.
The Getty chose the November 1970 date because that's when the United Nations gave its blessing to a convention aimed at preventing illicit movement of cultural property. The measure had little effect on the habits of major American museums, but the British Museum has adopted similar standards, and the University of Pennsylvania's art museum has taken its own conservative stance.
"We're trying to do what we believe is right," said Getty Museum Director Michael Brand. He added that the move had no direct connection with the ongoing trial of former Getty curator Marion True -- whom Italian prosecutors accuse of knowingly receiving looted items -- or Italian cultural officials' pending demand for the return of 52 items from the Getty collection.
"I suspect that they'll be happy to hear about this, but it's not something we've discussed with them," Brand said.
The Getty's trustees, who approved the policy change Monday, "are really taking a very principled stand," said Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago and president of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation.
Gerstenblith said she hoped the move would influence other institutions -- perhaps including the American Assn. of Museums, which has a task force working now on acquisition ethics -- and throw a harsh spotlight on New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Though the influential Met made headlines worldwide in February when it agreed to return 21 items demanded by Italy, including a prized vase known as the Euphronios krater, the museum has resisted calls to change its acquisition standards.
Like another powerful organization, the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, the Met generally endorses antiquities acquisitions so long as there's no proof of impropriety and the works have been documented for at least 10 years.
Gerstenblith dismissed that standard as "inadequate," saying that "museums need to acknowledge their past misdeeds."
Bell put it this way: "The reformers are at the gates, and the Met is pouring boiling oil on them.... The Getty is recognizing the moral problem, and the Met will have to come to that too."
Not surprisingly, Met spokesman Harold Holzer sees the issue differently.
"We're not contemplating any change in our policy," he said Thursday. "If you choose one date as your watershed date, it doesn't mean you're any more vigilant than you were before, and the Met considers itself extremely diligent."
Furthermore, Holzer said, the Getty's move "doesn't address the idea of what you do in the case of a fugitive masterpiece that's separated from its original site and may not be traceable back.... Does that mean you relegate it to oblivion forever?"
Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, museums maintained that an antiquity was fair game so long as nobody could prove it was looted. The Getty, well-financed and eager to catch up with older institutions, spent tens of millions of dollars in the 1970s, '80s and '90s and built an antiquities collection of more than 44,000 items. In 1995, the museum adopted a new policy barring acquisitions that were undocumented before that year.
When asked how many items in the Getty collection would flunk the new test, Brand declined to answer.
Under the new antiquities policy, the Getty will require at least one of these three conditions:
* Documentation or substantial evidence that the piece entered the U.S. by Nov. 17, 1970, and that "there is no reason to suspect it was illegally exported from its country of origin."
* Documentation or substantial evidence that the item was out of its original country by 1970 and that it has been or will be legally imported to the U.S.
* Documentation or substantial evidence that the item was legally exported from its original country after 1970 and that it has been or will be legally imported to the U.S.
Brand said Thursday's move, which will "severely limit" future acquisitions, formalized a position that he took upon arrival at the museum early this year.
The museum has acquired no antiquities since then, Brand noted. In the last five years, he said, its antiquities acquisitions amount to 12 purchased and 14 donated items.
Brand said only one of those failed to meet the museum's new standard: a coin with an unknown provenance and an estimated worth of $400.
Meanwhile, Italian officials -- who in recent years have won back 21 items from the Met, 13 from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in September and at least six from the Getty -- want 52 more items from the Getty, including statues of Aphrodite and a young male athlete that have been favorites in Getty galleries for years.
Also, Greek cultural officials, who persuaded the Getty in July to return two disputed antiquities, are still seeking two others.