About those 45,000 antiquities…

The Getty's amber collection includes this object circa 525-480 B.C.
A problematic Amber piggie?

Jason Felch reported for the LA Times on Saturday on an effort by the Getty to verify the histories of some 45,000 antiquities in its collection, and publish these results in its online database.

The review is likely to reveal that problems in the Getty’s collection go far deeper than the nearly 50 looted objects returned since 2007 , according to Getty records and interviews with antiquity dealers and former museum officials. Hundreds of objects still in the collection were acquired with false ownership histories aimed at disguising their origins in the illicit antiquities trade, records and interviews show. The depth of its problem was underscored in November, when the Getty published a catalog of 56 carved ambers, objects that the ancient Greeks and Etruscans used in amulets for the magical properties they were believed to possess. At first look, “Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum” represents the museum at its finest — decades of scholarship published online in an illustrated catalog that engages the public in a rarely studied artifact of the ancient world. But records — including internal Getty files — show that the ambers were almost certainly looted from tombs in northern Italy.

This will be a fascinating effort to track in the coming months. The Getty is conducting this retroactive history search, and is a very good effort. The point to note though is how deep this examination goes into the objects, and whether it will trigger continued returns. Will the nations of origin even want the return of all of this study material? Will these nations have the capacity to store and study these objects in the same way the Getty can? Is this a contradiction the Getty hopes to make? All interesting questions.

  1. Jason Felch, Getty studies its antiquities, Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/19/entertainment/la-et-getty-ambers-20130119.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Getty Announces Return of Morgantina Terracotta Head

The head of Hades, likely looted from
Morgantina, to return to Aidone in 2014

I’ve received a press release from the Getty announcing it will voluntarily return this terracotta head to Italy, specifically Sicily. It depicts the god Hades, and may date to 400-300 B.C.

The Getty press release is slim on details of the acquisition and on what circumstances led to the decision to make a voluntary return. The release states that “joint research” with colleagues in Sicily since 2010 has brought new information to light “suggesting that it was appropriate to return the object”. The evidence is the discovery of four other terracotta fragments near Morgantina which must match this head in some way. The only mention of wrongdoing in the release states that these four fragments were uncovered at “the site of a sanctuary of Demeter, which was clandestinely excavated in the late 1970s.”

The language of the release is careful and I guess serves its purpose. I wonder if there is room here for an analysis of the shape and form that these press releases. I think so. Think about how it differs and resists the words we often use to describe this activity. The words ‘repatriation’, ‘Italy’, ‘looting’, and even ‘crime’,  are not mentioned. But despite the problem I have with the language, it appears from the release as if the Getty is doing cultural justice here. The object was looted and it is returning home soon. But I’m left wondering how many other objects from sites like Morgantina does the Getty retain. The release ties the return to the discovery of physical evidence at the site, and connects this with the object. But what about the contemporary evidence like who bought the object from who and what questions were asked when an object was acquired. We know from investigative reporting like Chasing Aphrodite how little inquiry was made. But this would be so much more direct, cheaper and useful than elaborate scientific tests. My rule of thumb when visiting a museum is, if they don’t tell you about the history of an object, there is very good chance it was looted.

This head will be transferred over to the Archaeological Museum in Aidone, where it will likely be displayed near “la dea di Aidone” previously known as the Getty goddess, returned in 2010. The head first will be a part of a Getty-organized traveling exhibition titled “Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome” which will start at the Getty, stop off at the Clevelend Museum of Art, and culminate in Palermo in June 2014.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Italian Court Confirms Seizure of "Getty Bronze"

The Getty received some very bad news Thursday.

Jason Felch reports on a ruling by an Italian regional magistrate in Pesaro upholding an earlier ruling to seize the bronze statue.

The ruling Thursday by a regional magistrate in Pesaro will likely prolong the legal battle over the statue, a signature piece of the Getty’s embattled antiquities collection whose return Italian authorities have sought for years. “This was the news we were waiting for,” said Gian Mario Spacca, president of the Marche region where the statue was hauled ashore in 1964, in an interview with Italian reporters. “Now we will resume contacts made with the Getty Museum to build a positive working relationship.” Spacca visited the Getty last year hoping to negotiate an agreement to share the statue. But the Getty has made clear it will fight in court to keep the piece and is expected to appeal the ruling to Italy’s highest court.

Using a domestic court to seek the seizure of an illegally exported object from another country has not been attempted before. But Italy has been at the forefront of repatriation strategies. This novel approach could lead to a new legal tool for nations of origin to pursue, if it can convince the Attorney General and a U.S. District Court to enforce this seizure order. The Getty appealed the earlier ruling, and they did so for a reason, this case could set a precedent which would open up museums to seizure suits in the nation of origin.

It should be interesting to watch this dispute continue. For background on this dispute, see here.

  1. Jason Felch, Italian court upholds claim on Getty bronze, L.A. Times, May 4, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-getty-bronze-ruling-20120504,0,2759444.story (last visited May 5, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Antiquities and the New Leadership at the Getty

Jason Felch reports for the LA Times on the new director of the Getty Museum, Timothy Potts, who has opposed reforms of the antiquities trade. He will join James Cuno, the Getty Trust CEO, who has also been critical of efforts to restrict the flow of looted antiquities. The Getty has a very strict acquisitions policy, so I’m not sure how much their criticism of the reform will lead to the actual acquisition of objects. They will be subject to a great deal of scrutiny like this report where Felch details a previous controversy involving a Roman torso:

 In late 2000, Potts approved the acquisition of a rare Sumerian statuette for $2.7 million. The 15-inch alabaster figure was an ancient masterpiece from the cradle of civilization, the region Potts had specialized in while studying at Oxford. It was to be an important contribution to the Kimbell’s small but highly regarded collection. 

But shortly after the statue arrived at the museum, court records show that Potts took the unusual step of returning it to the dealer and asking for a full refund. 

Publicly, Potts said that he wanted to free up money for other acquisitions. But he later testified that he had learned the dealer — Hicham Aboutaam, owner of the New York City antiquities gallery Phoenix Ancient Art — was under investigation by the IRS, and decided against buying from him. 

Soon, though, Potts changed his mind about doing business with Aboutaam. After receiving repayment for the Sumerian statuette in November 2001, Potts moved to acquire a $4-million Roman torso he had admired on an earlier visit to Aboutaam’s gallery on East 66th Street in Manhattan.

  1. Jason Felch, Antiquities issue rears head with Getty leaders Potts, Cuno in place, Los Angeles Times Articles, February 17, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/17/entertainment/la-et-getty-antiquities-20120217 (last visited Feb 20, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

A postscript to "Chasing Aphrodite"

la dea di Morgantina

Ralph Frammolino, one of the co-author’s of “Chasing Aphrodite” has a cover story in the November issue of Smithsonian Magazine. It recounts his unsuccessful attempt to interview Renzo Canavesi, a man identified as the previous owner of the statue formerly known as the “Getty Goddess” but now called “la dea di Morgantina”. He wasn’t willing to talk, but we are reminded again of the great reporting done on the statue and the Getty:

While Jason [Felch, his coauthor,] was reporting in Sicily, I went to Switzerland to interview Renzo Canavesi, who used to run a tobacco shop and cambia, or money-changing house, near Chiasso, just north of the Italian border. For decades the border region had been known for money-laundering and smuggling, mostly in cigarettes but also drugs, guns, diamonds, passports, credit cards—and art. It was there in March 1986 that the goddess statue first surfaced in the market, when Canavesi sold it for $400,000 to the London dealer who would offer it to the Getty. 

The transaction had generated a receipt, a hand-printed note on Canavesi’s cambia stationery—the statue’s only shred of provenance. “I am the sole owner of this statue,” it read, “which has belonged to my family since 1939.” After the London dealer turned the receipt over to authorities in 1992, an Italian art squad investigator said he thought Canavesi’s statement was dubious: 1939 was the year Italy passed its patrimony law, making all artifacts discovered from then on property of the state. After a second lengthy investigation in Italy, Canavesi was convicted in absentia in 2001 of trafficking in looted art. But the conviction was overturned because the statute of limitations had expired.

It’s a good summary of a very fine book. And as I’m reading the story again, I’m reminded of Marion True and the Getty and the cover up and the duplicitous nature of her public comments in favor of protection, all while she was acquiring objects. There must be, I’m sure, a story like this for the repatriations from the other museums. But that reporting has not been done yet.

  1. Ralph Frammolino, The Goddess Goes Home, Smithsonian, Nov. 2011, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Goddess-Goes-Home.html?c=y&story=fullstory (last visited Oct 21, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Was Jiri Frel a Spy?

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino undertook a Freedom of Information Act request for the FBI’s file on former Getty Curator Jiri Frel, and posted the FBI file. The FBI was very interested in Frel, sparking rumors over whether Arthur Houghton was tasked with keeping “an eye on” Frel.

A spy?

Espionage allegations aside, the Frel file is a fascinating study of a complicated personality. It hints at Frel’s famously chaotic love life. More importantly, it demonstrates how adept the charismatic polymath, connoisseur and political shape-shifter was at manipulating situations and spinning answers for his own survival. Colleagues at the Getty knew Frel as an Old World snob who constantly complained about America, its broken education system, its obsession with pop culture, its hot dogs and unpalatable mustard. Indeed, years later, when he was caught conducting a massive tax fraud scheme and falsifying provenance for million-dollar fakes at the Getty, Frel left America and never looked back. Yet during his 1971 FBI interview, the reporting agent noted how Frel gushed that “he considers the United States to be in his words ‘a great and good country.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Did Marion True Ever Catch a Looter or Dealer?

One of the stolen Mosaics at issue in the case

Some folks on the internet are not too pleased about the letter I collaborated on with Noah Charney re-examining Hugh Eakin’s review of Chasing Aphrodite. A pointed response by David Gill here, and another critic wonders “whether anything done by Marion True herself actually led to the capture and conviction of a single looter of archaeological sites, or advanced any “Research into Crimes against Art”?

Yes, she certainly did, according to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. As anyone should know who claims to study looting of archaeology and heritage, Marion True was the hero of one of the most prominent antiquities cases of the last thirty years, AUTOCEPHALOUS GREEK-ORTHODOX CHURCH OF CYPRUS vs.GOLDBERG, 917 F. 2d 278 (7th Cir., 1990) (available here). The case involved an antiquities dealer, Peg Goldberg, as well as Michel van Rijn. A helpful summary of the case is available here from IFAR.  I discuss the case at some length in  an article where I argue the nation of origin’s law should be applied more often in cross-border trafficking in pieces of cultural heritage.

But with respect to Marion True, she is the unabashed hero of the case. From the opinion by Chief Judge Alex Bauer:

Peg Goldberg’s efforts soon turned to just that: the resale of these valuable mosaics. She worked up sales brochures about them, and contacted several other dealers to help her find a buyer. Two of these dealers’ searches led them both to Dr. Marion True of the Getty Museum in California. When told of these mosaics and their likely origin, the aptly-named Dr. True explained to the dealers that she had a working relationship with the Republic of Cyprus and that she was duty-bound to contact Cypriot officials about them. Dr. True called Dr. Vassos Karageorghis, the Director of the Republic’s Department of Antiquities and one of the primary Cypriot officials involved in the worldwide search for the mosaics. Dr. Karageorghis verified that the Republic was in fact hunting for the mosaics that had been described to Dr. True, and he set in motion the investigative and legal machinery that ultimately resulted in the Republic learning that they were in Goldberg’s possession in Indianapolis.

(emphasis added)

The opinion is also widely cited because of a concurring opinion by Judge Cudahy embedding the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1970 UNESCO Convention into cultural heritage law, a precedent which has had a number of important effects.

Marion True is no saint, nobody would argue she is, but her story is more complicated than merely painting her as the endpoint for looted antiquities. She did so much more, as Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino explain in their book. Italian officials will tell you if asked that the case was brought against her because they had the evidence, not necessarily because she was the worst offender. And yes, she was instrumental in returning at least one looted object.  group of looted objects.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com