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So long, goddess

The Getty Trust's return of 40 disputed works to Italy is painful, but necessary for the museum's future.

August 03, 2007

Italian authorities persuaded the J. Paul Getty Museum this week to return 40 disputed works of art, including one of the most striking antiquities found in any American museum: a 2,400-year-old statue of a goddess believed to be Aphrodite, the Greek epitome of love and beauty. The agreement is a multimillion-dollar setback for the Getty and visitors to the Getty Villa, where most of the works were on permanent display. But for the Getty Trust, the deal also brings relief. That's because it's the final act in a housecleaning prompted by a humiliating series of scandals.

The institution's troubles began in May 2005, when Italian prosecutors obtained an indictment against former antiquities curator Marion True for allegedly conspiring to plunder Italian treasures and receiving stolen goods. Later that year, then-Chief Executive Barry Munitz came under fire for the lavish pay and perks he commanded, including a Porsche SUV as a company car. The state attorney general launched an investigation, as did the Getty board, which pushed Munitz out in 2006. Another internal review by the Getty raised questions about the provenance of 350 antiquities in its collection, including 35 of the museum's 104 masterpieces.

The Getty's board has dispelled most of these clouds by exercising -- belatedly -- some badly needed leadership. The state attorney general's office wrapped up its investigation by chiding the trust and Munitz for misusing funds, but imposing no financial penalty. The Getty, which already had policies to guard against the acquisition of looted antiquities, toughened them and installed a chief executive with a reputation for scrupulous ethics. Museum Director Michael Brand, one of Munitz's final hires, swiftly made peace with Greece by returning four disputed artifacts that the Getty had bought for more than $5 million.

The dispute with Italy isn't completely resolved, as the fate of at least one more prized work -- a bronze statue of an athlete from the 4th century BC -- has yet to be determined. Already the price paid by the Getty seems high in comparison to other museums, which have had to return fewer pieces. Because it's a relatively young institution, its collections are more limited by antiquities-trading laws and treaties that date to 1939 -- long after some venerable museums around the globe had assembled their collections.

Still, the Getty is doing the right thing, given the evidence about many of the works. Its agreement with the Italian government holds the promise of more long-term loans of valuable antiquities, adding a new dimension to the Villa's permanent collection and exhibitions. Indeed, as the rules on antiquities trading tighten, the ability to borrow notable works from Italy and Greece grows in importance.

Beyond that, the prominence of the disputed works at the Villa was a painful reminder of the gap between what the Getty pledged to do and what it actually did. Just as the Porsche had to go, so did the goddess.

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