Along with its corporate governance woes, the J. Paul Getty Museum has faced other troubles over the last few years — questions about the provenance of some of its antiquities and about the rigor of its acquisition policies.
At the center of this issue is a long-running fight with Italy and Greece; both demanded that the Getty return antiquities they claimed had been looted from them. In August, following years of negotiations periodically interrupted by harsh words fired back and forth in the press, the Getty announced that it would return 40 artifacts to Italy. Last December it agreed to return two disputed treasures to Greece. (Other museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, have also returned art to the Italians.)Spurred by the controversy, the Getty also looked into the broader question of whether its acquisition policies were strict enough. If antiquities aren’t legally obtained and properly imported, current international law says that they should be returned to the country of origin. At the Getty, oversight over provenance was too lax, according to former chairman John Biggs. “Obviously trustee and leadership decisions had been made to collect items that had very questionable provenance,” he acknowledges.In October 2006 the Getty board adopted a new rule that says the museum will only purchase artifacts that it can document were legally imported by November 1970 — the date on which a UNESCO convention established strict rules. The Getty was the first U.S. art museum to adopt these guidelines, according to ex-GC Peter Erichsen, who calls them “the gold standard.”Erichsen credits Getty museum director Michael Brand with taking the lead in advocating the revision. Previously, the trust required only that objects be acquired from “established, well-documented collections” mentioned in an art publication before 1995.But the artifacts scandal isn’t completely over. The Getty’s former curator, Marion True, is still on trial in Rome — a trial that began in November 2005 — charged with criminal conspiracy to obtain looted artifacts. True purchased the antiquities at issue (which the Getty agreed to return in its settlement with Italy) in the 1990s. She resigned from the Getty shortly before her trial, though the trust continues to pay her legal bills. The court in Rome is often in session once a month, then goes on hiatus for months at a time. Yet, even after the Getty settled with Italy, prosecutors refused to drop the charges against True.