Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino–nominated for a pulitzer in 2005 for their reporting on the Getty–have a can’t miss article in Friday’s edition of the LA Times. The subject is the agreement to return 40 antiquities to Italy.
Here’s an excerpt:
The museum’s youth and wealth made it an ideal target. Unlike its East Coast peers, which built the bulk of their collections in the decades before tough new laws governing antiquity purchases, the Getty came late to the collecting game. The museum didn’t receive its enormous endowment until the early 1980s, just as the United States was ratifying an international agreement that, among other things, banned traffic in artifacts that had left Italy without permission after 1939.
Fine antiquities, a passion of the museum’s benefactor and namesake, could still be found on the market. But museum officials often turned a blind eye to whether the artifacts had been illegally excavated and exported from their country of origin.
It’s an excellent overview of this dispute, and the problem with the antiquities trade generally. It also gives the context for how the Getty got itself into this mess and how it has responded in the past months. There’s a photo gallery of some of the important works which will be returned to Italy here; a helpful .pdf shows where in the Getty Villa the works are currently displayed; there’s also a nice gallery of photos from Italy by Luis Sinco here (including this image of a looted grave in Castelvetrano, Sicily).
NPR’s All Things Considered also covered the agreement this week. You can hear Michael Brand, the museum director, give his opinion. Patty Gerstenblith, a legal commentator on antiquities issues, also comments that this agreement rights past wrongs. Perhaps more relevant though is the Getty’s decision to no longer acquire antiquities without clean title dating to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. As she says, working to stem the illicit antiquities trade “is the most important thing that museums can and should be doing at this point.”
I also think the comments of Francesco Rutelli on Thursday were dead-on, and indicated a pragmatic view of the trade that many passionate advocates miss. He said efforts to stem the illicit antiquities trade “make looting more attractive.” He continues “Such a decisive fight against art trafficking makes looting more attractive, in the sense that (the items) have a higher value because there are fewer… An object that a few years ago could be bought for US$400,000 (€290,250), today is worth US$4 million (€2.9 million).” He’s exactly right, and its something legal commentators have been arguing since Paul Bator’s seminal work An Essay on the International Trade in Art.