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Getty studies its antiquities

The review focuses on the origins of the museum's collection of ancient art in the aftermath of a scandal.

January 19, 2013|Jason Felch
  • The Getty's amber collection includes this object circa 525-480 B.C.
The Getty's amber collection includes this object circa 525-480… (The J. Paul Getty Museum )

In the wake of a scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum is trying to verify the ownership histories of 45,000 antiquities and publish the results in the museum's online collections database.

The study, part of the museum's efforts to be more transparent about the origins of ancient art in its collection, began last summer, said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

"In this effort, and in all our work, when we identify objects that warrant further discussion and research, we conduct the necessary research to determine whether an item should be returned," Hartwig said in a statement to The Times.

The review is likely to reveal that problems in the Getty's collection go far deeper than the nearly 50 looted objects returned since 2007 , according to Getty records and interviews with antiquity dealers and former museum officials.

Hundreds of objects still in the collection were acquired with false ownership histories aimed at disguising their origins in the illicit antiquities trade, records and interviews show.

The depth of its problem was underscored in November, when the Getty published a catalog of 56 carved ambers, objects that the ancient Greeks and Etruscans used in amulets for the magical properties they were believed to possess.

At first look, "Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum" represents the museum at its finest -- decades of scholarship published online in an illustrated catalog that engages the public in a rarely studied artifact of the ancient world.

But records -- including internal Getty files -- show that the ambers were almost certainly looted from tombs in northern Italy.

The relics passed through the smuggling network of Giacomo Medici, who has been convicted in Italy of trafficking in illegally excavated artifacts. Once in the United States, they were donated to the Getty as part of a tax fraud scheme that nearly brought the institution to its knees in the 1980s.

The catalog is silent on this history, which a Getty spokesman says the museum was not aware of at the time, but it does acknowledge the consequences. Because nothing is known of the context in which the ambers were found, little can be definitively concluded about their meaning to their ancient owners.

"Were they purchases, part of a dowry, heirlooms, or other kinds of gifts?" writes Faya Causey, author of the catalog. "Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to whether the ambers were actually possessions of the people with whom they were buried, how the objects were acquired, and in which cultic or other activity they played a part."

The ambers capture the dilemma that the Getty faces today. Having largely abandoned the purchase of ancient art, it is using its unparalleled resources to restore meaning to objects whose history it had a hand in destroying.

The bulk of the Getty's collection of ancient amber was donated between 1976 and '83 by Gordon McLendon, a Texas radio man who pioneered the Top 40 format on AM radio. McLendon was not known as an art collector. How did he come to possess a world-class collection of ancient amber? And why did he donate it to a museum so wealthy it had no need of donations?

The answers are in Getty documents and notes collected by Arthur Houghton, a former associate curator for antiquities at the Getty who initiated an internal investigation into the ambers soon after his arrival in 1983. What Houghton found -- and Getty lawyers later confirmed -- was that McLendon was part of a decade-long looting and tax fraud scheme being run out of the Getty's antiquities department.

The scheme was orchestrated by Getty antiquities curator Jiri Frel, with help from Bruce McNall, then a Los Angeles antiquities dealer, and Robert E. Hecht, McNall's supplier. In the late 1970s, the three devised a way to build the Getty's collection while moving the less collectible inventory in McNall's Rodeo Drive antiquities gallery.

Hecht supplied thousands of recently looted antiquities from Italy, Turkey and Greece, records and interviews show. Frel forged appraisals that grossly inflated their value, and McNall found wealthy friends to donate them to the Getty in exchange for fraudulent tax write-offs.

Over a decade, the Getty received some 6,000 donations from more than 100 donors whose gifts were valued at nearly $15 million, tax records show. More than 900 objects were donated by McLendon, including the ancient ambers.

In the late 1970s, McNall had alerted McLendon that the Getty was interested in acquiring a group of ambers owned by a Swiss man named Fritz Burki.

Burki, a former university janitor turned antiquities restorer, has told Italian prosecutors that he served as a "straw man" for sales of looted objects being fenced by Hecht and his Italian supplier, convicted trafficker Giacomo Medici. Burki's name is associated with hundreds of looted objects that have since been returned to Italy, including several from the Getty's collection.

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