The Italian government is accusing museums all over the world of having purchased stolen artwork on a grand scale. A former curator at California's Getty Museum now faces charges in Rome. The museum community, especially in the United States, is watching the case anxiously.
It's a clique shrouded in mystery, and it includes some of the most powerful people in the art world. Each year, this group -- made up of the directors of some 50 world-renowned museums -- meets to exchange information ranging from confidential gossip to their visions for the future.
This year's meeting of the "Bizot Group" -- named after founder Irène Bizot, the former head of France's Reunion des Musees Nationaux -- was two weeks ago in Los Angeles. Every top name in the business was there, including museum directors from Australia, the United States, and Europe; from Madrid, Vienna and Berlin. Three museum directors from London attended: the heads of the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Philippe de Montebello, director of New York's Metropolitan Museum, was one of the meeting moderators. The gathering was scheduled to span several days, including one spent in the well-heeled Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
But the topic under discussion at the Getty was anything but pleasant. "The tone suddenly became quite sharp and the mood nervous," says one attendee. After all, the art empire of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty (which also includes the Getty Villa and Getty Center) is under fire. The Getty Museum has become embroiled in a scandal and the word "Gettygate" -- as innocuous as it may sound -- spells big trouble for the museum world.
The beginning of a bleak period
The trial of Marion True, for many years a curator at the Getty Museum, begins on Wednesday in Rome. True was fired by the Getty a few weeks ago or, to be more precise, the museum accepted her long hoped-for resignation. In Rome she will face charges stemming from her former job as an art buyer for the Getty -- and it will mark the first time an American museum is hauled before a foreign court. If the Italian authorities have their way, the management of other leading museums could soon find themselves in a similar position. Indeed, the entire museum industry is holding its breath. The True case could mark the beginning of a bleak period for the museum world.
At issue is stolen art. True, 57, headed the Getty's antiquities department for many years, and Italian prosecutors claim she knowingly acquired stolen pieces for the Getty Museum. Specifically, 42 of them -- works that allegedly came from illegal archeological digs in Italy or were illegally exported from the country. Ancient sculptures of Aphrodite and Apollo are among the works as are opulent vessels and urns -- all one-of-a-kind examples of art from the Greek, Etruscan and Roman periods.
It's an explosive case, one in which the rest of the industry has preferred to maintain a low profile for as long as possible. The Bizot group, for its part, promptly voted down a suggestion that it issue a statement of solidarity with the Getty.
The industry's reticence is not surprising. After all, none of its members can claim complete innocence when it comes to buying stolen art. Indeed, the Italian prosecutors have already contacted several other museums worldwide. In many of these cases, they believe they have evidence proving that these museums more or less knowingly used less than savory channels for new acquisitions.
Two art dealers are seen as key figures in the case. Giacomo Medici, 67, is an Italian who operates from his office in Switzerland. In 2004, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined €10 million for selling stolen art. His case is currently under appeal. The other figure is Robert Hecht, an 86-year-old American living in Paris. Medici was his most important supplier, while Hecht himself maintained close contacts with the world's major museums -- this despite the fact that he has long been considered controversial and was denied entry into Italy as long ago as the 1970s.
The Rome prosecutors apparently have in their possession Hecht's handwritten notes and memoirs, in which he convincingly describes a number of disreputable deals, many having taken place decades ago. Hecht himself, who has been named as a co-defendant in the case with True, claims that the notes are fictitious.
Other museums suspected as well
The Italians believe that US collections alone contain more than 100 ancient objects acquired through criminal channels. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for example, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are both under suspicion. The prosecutors have also claimed that New York's Metropolitan Museum owns eight questionable objects, including a 2,500-year-old black, red-figured terracotta vase from the Greek Attic period, richly painted and even signed by artist Euphronius. Hecht and Medici have also been implicated in the Metropolitan's 1972 purchase of the vase.
In an uncharacteristic move, the Metropolitan Museum sheepishly offered to meet with officials from the Italian Ministry of Culture for an "open discussion of the pieces in question." A meeting, however, has not yet been scheduled, say museum officials.
In fact, the Italians appear to be more interested in confrontation than cooperation. More than ever, they now see themselves as custodians of their own heritage and as hunters of art thieves. Indeed, the special division Italian police created to investigate art theft has already attracted international attention with its investigative zeal.
The investigation in the Marion True case began a decade ago. At the time, a shipment including old pottery shards, bowls, sarcophagi, sculptures and hundreds of Polaroid photos was seized in a customs warehouse in Geneva. The photographs, which apparently belonged to Medici, depicted many treasures of antiquity, and the dirt still clinging to some of the sculptures suggested that they were recently unearthed. That was when the search began.
Several years later, Marion True received what seemed to be an innocent visit from the Italian investigators. They wanted to enlist the aid of the well-known expert and hoped that she could provide more specific information about the whereabouts of the antiquities depicted in Medici's photos. Before long, however, the American curator became a suspect herself.
Hundreds of documents leaked to the Los Angeles Times
True has consistently maintained her innocence, as has the Getty. Lately, though, the museum has become more reticent. Sources from within the museum, it appears, have contributed to the undermining the credibility of both True and the Getty Museum itself. Hundreds of documents from the Getty's files, archives and computers -- including photos -- were leaked to the Los Angeles Times. The paper has been printing new revelations for weeks, including claims that, based on its own estimates, the Getty could well own half of all significant antiquities purchases said to be from dubious sources.
The paper also quotes from letters art dealer Hecht wrote to True, in which he provided dimensions, dates and at one point even noted that Italian police were looking for a particular vase. But that apparently didn't stop the Getty from purchasing the piece.
Over and above the shady purchases, True is also under suspicion for the suspect purchase of a house on a Greek island. The property was apparently purchased with the help of two art dealers closely associated with the Getty, a fact the museum only recently disclosed to the public. In a rare statement on the matter, the museum writes that, unfortunately, "True neglected to report certain aspects of this purchase."
Getty has, for many years, spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the acquisition of new art pieces. The billion dollar institute was intent on building one of the world's greatest collections. Now, they stand accused of pushing their buyers too hard -- and of changing the rules of the game. Maxwell Anderson, a former head of the American Association of Art Museum Directors, sums up the issue by saying: "What was considered adventurous in the 1980s is viewed as criminal behavior today."
Does this mean that the practices that are now appearing in an unfavorable light were once considered completely above-board? And does this defuse the allegations? The fact of the matter is the acquisition policies for many collections (despite the museum community's various resolutions and declarations) have only changed in recent years. Unfortunately, however, these changes have not taken root everywhere. In the cautious assessment of expert Wolf-Dieter Heilmeyer, who has been critical of museums' acquisition policies, some museums in the Western world "are still learning."
"Didn't want to know"
Heilmeyer, 66, was director of the antiquities collection at Berlin's State Museums for many years. Retired since April 2004, he received a visit from Italian prosecutors a year earlier. The Italians stayed a few days but eventually returned to Italy empty-handed. "We have nothing to hide," says Heilmeyer, "in fact, we have consistently combated illegal archaeology."
Heilmeyer believes that the upcoming court case in Italy is an "expression of a transitional phase," and that in the future no one will truly be able to plead their own gullibility or that their actions merely reflect what is customary in the industry. "For years," he says, "many museums didn't want to know" the source of a piece or the story behind its acquisition.
Many -- not just dealers and their clients -- have behaved anywhere from naively to frivolously. In Heilmeyer's view, if an archaeologist writes an appraisal of an object, thereby lending it an apparently legal status, despite the fact that its source and its acquisition documents seem dubious, he is merely "aligning himself with the receivers of stolen art."
And the Getty? It has now returned three of the antiquities -- a millennia-old vase, an Etruscan bronze candelabra and a grave slab with a chiseled inscription -- to Italy as "a sign of our good will."
The three objects were unveiled to the public last Friday in Rome -- in the presence of Italian Minister of Culture Rocco Buttiglione. The Italians had a few harsh words for the museum community, noting that the Getty had "known about the illegal origins" of the works. All three pieces had once been "stolen," one even taken directly from the ground at a site near Naples. The Getty acquired the pieces between 1980 and 1995. "The American people should know that organized crime is often behind the smuggling of archaeological treasures," said Buttiglione. Art smuggling, he continued, is a "source of funding for international terrorism."
His tone became friendlier when he mentioned negotiations with the Getty over the return of other art treasures. But such gestures will do little to rectify the damage to the Getty's image. The legendary institution, with its aspirations of becoming a Californian Louvre, has since turned into a hotbed of crisis.
The scandal has also extended beyond the museum itself, including rumors about Barry Munitz, the president of the Getty Trust, which controls the museum. Munitz, who favors luxurious business trips and expensive company cars, has been accused of extravagance, and prosecutors in California have already announced that they plan to launch an investigation in his spending habits.
Historically the Getty has always been both ostentatious and generous, supporting research projects worldwide. In the mid-1970s the museum, founded in 1953, moved to the Getty Villa, a replica of an ancient palace in Herculaneum. A father-in-law of Julius Caesar is said to have lived in the original. The Getty Center, a vast, light-filled structure designed by star architect Richard Meier, was built in the 1990s, allegedly at the outrageous cost of $1 billion.
The Getty Villa is currently undergoing renovation and, together with surrounding new buildings, will be expanded into a sort of museum theme park. Marion True was in charge of the $275 million project -- the complex is envisioned as the ultimate exhibit space for the Getty's antiquities department. The new complex is scheduled to open in late January 2006. A triumphant grand opening, however, is unlikely.
Translated from the Germany by Christopher Sultan