Scandal at the Getty has far-reaching implications for museums acquiring new works

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When John Keats mused that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, he could hardly have envisioned the ugly drama that has splashed across the vast canvas of the international art world, like a bad drip pattern on a forged Jackson Pollock painting.

Associated Press
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently agreed to return the Euphronios Krater to Italy. The 2,500-year-old Greek vase had been part of the New York museum's collection since 1972.
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Carnegie's tale of two chairs

The saga of "Who Raided Italy's Treasures?" features a cast of diplomatic museum directors, grave robbers, dealers whose don't-ask-don't-tell attitude hastens the sale of stolen antiquities and persistent Italian prosecutors.

The star of this serial is Marion True, who is on trial in Rome and accused of knowingly buying looted antiquities while employed as a curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Her co-defendant is Ronald Hecht, an American art dealer.

In the most significant development so far, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed in February to return 21 of its decorative objects to Italy after cultural officials and government prosecutors there insisted the works were stolen from an Etruscan tomb outside of Rome.

Eventually, the Met will return 16 pieces of Hellenistic silver and a 2,500-year-old vase painted by the Greek artist Euphronius. The Met's director, Philippe de Montebello, maintained the objects were acquired in good faith. In exchange, the Italians will loan works of comparable value to the Met.

More recently, Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, announced that he will travel to Rome to negotiate with cultural officials because the country's leaders contend the Massachusetts museum may have property that belongs to Italy. The origins of works in the Cleveland Museum of Art and Toledo Museum of Art have also been questioned by Italian authorities, too, but so far, leaders of those institutions are not on the road to Rome.

But the quest for the rare and the beautiful continues unabated. In this era of the blockbuster exhibition, museums, like all arts organizations, compete fiercely for their share of visitors, cultural tourism dollars and prestige.

"You have to have something to trade to play with the big boys. There's a lot of testosterone mixed in with the Hermes bow ties of museum staff and antiquarians," said Tom Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum.

"In some of the instances, museums have been greedy. In other instances, they have been beholden to donors and collectors who have been less than scrupulous."

Proof and provenance

Locally, museum directors and their staffs say they are intensifying their scrutiny of art that they buy or borrow.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images
Marion True, the Getty Museum's former antiquities curator, is on trial in Rome, accused of knowingly acquiring antiquities stolen in Italy.
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This portrait from the Carnegie Museum of Art's collection was originally thought to be by Rembrandt, but it is now considered to be the work of an 18th-century fan of the Dutch artist.
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In 1997, officials at the Carnegie Museum of Art had to answer questions about a painting that was obtained in 1975 in a swap with the Israel Museum of Art. A French family named Schloss believed the Pittsburgh museum had acquired a painting taken from them when the Nazis occupied France during World War II. Hector Feliciano, an American journalist, reported the claim in his book, "The Lost Museum," but the claim proved baseless.

At the time of the exchange, museum officials here thought the oil on wood painting, "Portrait of an Elderly Jew With a Fur Hat," was a Rembrandt. Later research showed that it was neither by Rembrandt nor the work of painters considered part of the Dutch artist's school.

In 1998, additional sleuthing by Mark van Dessel, a French filmmaker, found that the painting owned by the Schloss family was in a museum in Prague.

Louise Lippincott remembers the fuss over that painting when she's shopping for art in New York, London or Zurich, searching for paintings that will enhance the Carnegie Museum of Art's collection. On average, the museum has $1.5 million to spend on art acquisitions each year.

Lippincott, curator of fine arts, looks for art that is in good condition and fits the museum's collection plan or can be used in an exhibition. Price is a factor, too, as is approval by Richard Armstrong, the museum's director. Members of the museum's collections committee also see the work before it is purchased; its meetings often begin with a viewing of the proposed acquisition.

Once the green light flashes, Lippincott starts researching the history of ownership, or provenance, of a painting, and the Internet is an important tool.

"You check various databases on stolen art, " she said, citing the Art Loss Register as an example. "Usually, the provenance is not complete. The older a work is, the less likely it is to be complete."

When Holocaust survivors began making claims on art that the Nazis appropriated from their relatives during Hitler's rise to power, American museums began paying closer attention to provenance.

The current controversy over stolen antiquities, Lippincott believes, will cause lasting change.

In the past, when researching provenance, "Dealers and collectors have relied on negative evidence -- there's no smoking gun. I don't think that's going to work anymore," she said. "Now, too many people care about the issue and because the legal situations and standards are changing.

"Very few museums in this country have collected antiquities in a serious way, and even fewer will do so in the future," predicted Lippincott, who worked at the Getty Museum before moving to Pittsburgh.

Reporting on a painting's provenance can require a 40-page report, as it did when Lippincott recommended the purchase of a Jean Francois Millet painting for the Getty. Or, it can be a matter of two pages, if the work is more contemporary.

Sometimes, gaps in provenance occur because a seller wishes to remain anonymous, Lippincott said, adding that in such cases, she never meets the seller or hears their name.

"People sell the art I'm interested in because they need money and they don't want the rest of the world to know they need money. That's often true for pictures sold at auction," Lippincott said.

For Tom Smart, director of collections and exhibitions at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze, "The ideal provenance traces the ownership right back to the artist's studio. The artist has a painting. They may take it to a dealer who sells it to a collector, who gives it to descendants, who give it to a museum, who de-accessions it and it winds up in a dealer's hands again."

Revising the rules

Bill Bodine, executive director of the Frick, attended the February meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors, a service organization for the largest art museums in North America.

The organization's new loan guidelines say curators may display archaeological objects that lack a complete provenance, especially if the item is so essential to an exhibition or important in its own right that it should be viewed by the public.

In other words, Bodine said, "They don't go as far as the archaeological community would like them to go. The archaeological community maintains that that wiggle room doesn't do anything to stop the trade of illicit objects."

By exhibiting such art, "Even if there is a gap in its provenance, you increase transparency and make it possible for everybody to see the object and figure out the provenance of the object."

The alternative is worse.

"The worst thing that can happen is that these objects go underground into the art market, and they will never be available for people to make claims against them. Museums are really trying to do the right thing," Bodine said.

He added that museums have been unfairly vilified, especially because so many institutions have spent money to display their collections online during the past two decades.

"The fact that somebody can go to the Web site of a museum and look at the collections and say, 'Oh, there's the [Paul] Gaugin that used to hang in my grandmother's house in Vienna in 1937,' has made it possible for people to make claims," Bodine said.

Museum directors must look more carefully at gifts from donors, too.

In years past, "You did some provenance checking, but basically you were grateful that somebody brought you a painting to add to your collections, if it was appropriate," he said.

Mary Sue Sweeney Price, president of the AAMD, runs The Newark Museum and grew up in Pittsburgh.

"My ability to go to those museums, where I spent every possible Saturday that I could at the Carnegie, at the Frick, was the most extraordinary educational experience," she said. "I would hate to see the role of the American museum diminished because cultural property laws begin to stipulate that all material from a certain country belongs only there.

"There are many objects in museums around the world that are the results of the grand tour, of war and conquest. That's the history of humanity, frankly."

Ann Sutherland Harris, professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, said the current scandal "means that probably far fewer antiquities will be bought and collected. There are still a lot underground in the whole Mediterranean basin. There are a lot of poor people there, and their incentive to dig them out is pretty obvious."

Even if museums no longer buy antiquities, private collectors and dealers will continue using the same rationalization for removing art from its country of origin.

"These objects are often extremely beautiful. They have already been ripped out of the soil. Their context has already been lost," Harris said, adding that collectors and dealers ask themselves, " 'If I don't take care of them, who will?' "

Who should decide

Privately, some museum directors say returning artifacts such as the Elgin Marbles, a frieze housed at the British Museum that once adorned the Parthenon in Greece, makes sense.

But Graham Shearing, a local art dealer who also curates shows at the Mattress Factory and writes art criticism, disagrees.

"Sometimes it's good for things to remain in one country and sometimes it's bad. ... Supposing that when he was in power, Saddam Hussein decided he wanted the great Iraqi treasures from the British Museum. Would you have been happy to send them back to his uncomfortable regime?" asked Shearing, who is from Britain.

Like the British Museum, museums of art in Cleveland and Toledo own antiquities that have come under scrutiny. Between the 1950s and '90s, Cleveland purchased eight works from Ronald Hecht, the art dealer now on trial in Italy. In 1982, Toledo bought an ancient Etruscan vase. The U.S. State Department inquired about that vase in 2001, said museum spokeswoman Holly Taylor, but since then museum leaders have heard nothing more. No charges have been filed against any officials at either of the Ohio museums.

The enhanced role of lawyers in the art market annoys some dealers.

"What is worse is to be saddled with a bunch of fusty old regulations cobbled up by a bunch of lawyers. The issue should be framed by people with a good knowledge of nature, not by lawyers who believe that human nature can be controlled," Shearing said.

Museums, Shearing insisted, "are just as human as human beings. As long as institutions and individuals collect, they are going to exhibit the strengths and weaknesses of collecting. And collecting is here to stay."

Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
The Carnegie Museum of Art's quest for new pieces often starts with curator of fine arts Louise Lippincott.
Click photo for larger image.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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