By Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, Times Staff Writers
There are several stories contained in today's Los Angeles Times nine page (internet format) expose of the Getty's history of buying suspect antiquities. Alas, only one of them is good.
To begin with, while I am always there at the drop of a Stetson - black, felt and low crowned, of course - to point out the LA Times seemingly hourly transgressions, I take far greater pleasure in talking about the good LA Times; the version of the Times that miraculously appears - seemingly deus ex machina - whenever the paper fields its deep bench of writing, investigative and, yes, even editorial, talent against a story that actually affects the citizen of... Los Angeles.
Still, even though this latest series of revelations will undoubtedly spell the end of Barry Munitz's misadventure at the Getty Trust (the only good news in this sordid affair), this is a tragic day for those of us who care about LA and its cultural resources. It now increasingly appears that the Getty has - long before the advent of Barry Munitz, buying from dealers of questionable reputations and acquiring massive numbers of art works that do not meet the Getty's publicly stated and ever increasingly stringent guidelines to a far greater degree than had ever been previously suspected
This is a black eye for both the museum and our city.
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.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.
That last sentence alludes to how during the Munitz reign, not only was evidence hidden from authorities but also from the majority of the board members. More on that latter.
The penultimate tragedy for Los Angeles, though, is that the Getty will now likely have to forfeit most, if not all of these works - along with the considerable money it paid for them. This will obviously leave considerable holes in the collection at new Getty Villa in Malibu scheduled to open in early 2006 since a clear majority of the pieces self- identified by the Getty as masterpieces, have been purchased from questionable dealers.
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 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.Compounding this disaster is the realization that if those same sums had been legally spent purchasing Old Master Paintings (still reasonably priced compared to Impressionists), enough masterpieces could have been purchased to have dramatically increased the quality of the Getty Museum's still spotty art collection.
Records show the Getty bought the statue in 1988 for $18 million, a sum not previously disclosed. It was the most the museum had ever paid for an antiquity.
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.
Seemingly, the costs of the potentially forfeitable 54 masterpieces could easily - even in 1980's and 1990's dollars - go well over a hundred million dollars.
I could also now detail a very long list of all that could have been legally bought at auction in the Old Master Painting market during those same years, but that sad history is simply too depressing to even think about, much less recount.
Lastly, as for what this all means for the future of HRH Barry - has my new Porsche been detailed yet? - Munitz, the increasingly catatonic Getty Board, the fledging Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum - Dr. Michael Brand - and the Getty Trust? - more on that latter today.