Getty sticks with antiquities [Getty antiquities policy]

The Art Newspaper, July-Aug. 1996, pp. 1, 17.

“Getty sticks with antiquities,” The Art Newspaper, July-Aug. 1996, pp. 1, 17.

The Getty Museum’s retreat from the antiquities market goes only so far

by Jason Edward Kaufman

LOS ANGELES. In November 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum announced a policy that on its surface appeared to remove the institution from the market for unprovenanced antiquities. [See The Art Newspaper, Dec. 1995, pages 1, 16]. Now, little more than half a year later, the museum has made an acquisition that illustrates the limits of that policy.

The new acquisition comprises some 300 Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities owned by Lawrence and Barbara Fleishman of New York. According to Marion True, curator of antiquities at the museum, most of the objects have been donated, and the museum has purchased “a very small percentage.” The collection, considered one of the finest of its kind in private hands, includes sculptures, vessels, furnishings, architectural fragments, frescoes, and jewelry dating from 2600 BC to AD 400. Estimated by an insider to be worth “at least $80 million,” the combined gift/purchase constitutes the single most valuable acquisition ever made by the Greek & Roman department, and comes just as the Getty is planning to convert their Villa in Malibu into an exhibition and research center for comparative archaeology, to open in the year 2000, three years after the $1-billion Getty Center opens in Brentwood.

The Fleischman collection was the subject of the Getty’s first temporary loan exhibition not more than 18 months ago. But, addressing this seeming impropriety, Ms True maintains there was never any agreement or understanding whatsoever, either formal or casual, that the Getty would eventually acquire all or part of the collection, or have the option of doing so. Mr Fleischman had not previously given the Getty any art, though in 1992-93 he sold the museum 9 pieces from his collection, including rare signed painted vases, Corinthean armor, and a cache of Hellenistic gold jewelry. The transaction caused the museum to postpone the exhibition, which ultimately was co-organised with the Cleveland Museum of Art. The purchases were included in the display, but not in the accompanying catalogue.

Of broader concern to observers in the field, accessioning the Fleischmans’ collection would seem to fly in the face of the Getty’s amended policy, if not in letter, than certainly in spirit. As Ms True described the policy change, speaking to The Art Newspaper in December, “Now we would only consider buying from an established collection that is known to the world, so that we do not have the issue of undocumented provenance.” The Fleischmans’s collection, assembled over the last several decades, contains only a very few objects that have any known provenance at all. It is the very collection that, when exhibited at the museum, was censured by members of the archaeological community who branded it a glaring example of how the flow of illegal antiquities is tacitly condoned — indeed abetted — by members of the trade, collectors, and museums.

“This acquisition is in line with exactly what we said we would do,” declares Ms True, adding, “We went out of our way to be clear that we were not saying we would not buy any more unprovenanced material.” She is absolutely accurate in saying so. The policy change did indeed allow for and even anticipate such acquisitions. Nonetheless, one had the impression that the Getty was taking the lead in establishing a more ethical foundation for American museums’ activities involving antiquities. While they have not failed to do so, it is now clear that the Getty has instituted not so much a clean-hands policy, as what might be called a “cleaner-hands” policy — a step in the right direction, but only the first step.

Understanding the reasoning that went into the policy change may serve to clarify some of the issues that must be resolved if a wider consensus is to be reached concerning the market for antiquities.

“Our museum has a mission to try to build a really wonderful collection and resource for the West Coast of the US,” explains Ms True. “We tried to do that as best we could under the prevailing American and international laws, and had thought to codify what we do with one of the most stringent policies for acquiring institutions in this country. It required that we send letters to the governments [of possible source countries] as well as to IFAR [the International Foundation for Art Research, an organisation that tracks stolen art internationally]. We had assisted in the recovery of a number of stolen pieces, and also prevented the museum from making some major errors in acquiring things that ultimately turned out to be stolen. Having practiced that for ten years, we decided, in the interest of our joint activities with the Getty’s conservation and research institutes, that we would put an additional level of requirement, that the piece had to have been previously documented as being in an established collection or coming from a known place that was completely legal. The information had to have been made public in some way, in a scholarly publication or an auction catalogue. That would give us another safeguard and also a more ethical and assertive approach in our activities. By taking this further step, we were basically saying we are backing off another level.”

“When you talk about pieces having provenance and documents,” continues Ms True, “you must realise that a lot of material enters museums’ collections with documents that are trotted out when people need them, and have been completely manufactured. The archaeological and scholarly record is distorted. Just having the documents we feel would not be enough. What we want is that the piece has been out, shown publicly, published — not something that’s been kept hidden. That’s when one get very suspicious. But,” she adds, “we are not saying that it had to have been in a collection for this many years,’ or that the collection had to have existed for this many years.'” Then, precisely how long must a piece be known to be “established”? “I would consider established’ collections George Ortiz’s Collection, Shelby White and Leon Levy’s Collection, Larry and Barbara’s [Fleischman] Collection, The Hunt Collection, The Hirschmann Collection — all of those are collections that have been published as such, documented and exhibited,” states Ms True. “Most of our acquisitions are likely to come from old collections whether here or abroad,” she notes, “and there has never been any question that we would look carefully in that direction if there were possibilities to acquire material.”

This would seem to mean that if a work is illegally excavated, the Getty would not consider buying it until a private collector gets a hold of it first and publishes it. But in fact, publication alone would not constitute sufficient provenance: “A piece has to have been published prior to the adoption of the amended policy [i.e., Nov. 1995],” explains Ms True. “This already excludes a number of things that have become available since,” she further comments, adding, “I do not think a collection currently in formation that has never been put into the literature as a kind of entity would be appropriate for us, but [according to the amended policy] that would be excluded.”

But why fix the date at November 1995 and not, say, 25 or even 50 years ago? After all, Ms True recognises that “A number of archaeologists and conservators feel we should not acquire any material that is not known to have been exported from its country of origin prior to the passage of the UNESCO Convention Act in 1970.” Why leave the door open to potentially illegal goods that entered the market in recent decades? The decision had to do with internal politics. Although the museum has taken precautions to avoid stolen art, they have nonetheless acquired a great deal of material which has never been published or recorded. “It didn’t seem reasonable to say, We condemn ourselves; we have been completely wrong in the past,’ and to establish a date that is at odds with our own [previous] activities,” explains Ms True — which seems somewhat beside the point, since a museum’s internal policy does not determine the legality or ethics of an acquisition. In any case, the terminus ante quem, before which an object must have been published, was set as the date of the policy change.

Salvatore Settis, director of the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities (formerly called the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities), condones the policy change, though he would have it go further. “There is a very clear distinction between being documented and being published. I only consider an object fully documented when I know not only the city where it comes from, but the exact archaeological situation where it comes from and other archaeological objects that it was associated with. But, there are many objects that have been in collections for a more or less long time, where the definition of provenance has to be less rigorous,” he concedes. “From which point on can we say a documented object is one where you know exactly from where it comes?”

The line had to be drawn somewhere, and by establishing it at 1995, the Getty has allowed an avenue for unprovenanced objects already in private hands to enter the public realm, and has done so without abetting future robbing of archaeological sites. “One of the major concerns for us,” says Ms True, “is that the collection remain in the public domain, accessible to scholars. You will always have private collectors,” she observes, “and I don’t think it is possible to say one can eliminate the traffic. But one can do a lot to curb it.” Mr Settis agrees with this line of reasoning, observing, “A museum is different from a research institution or a conservation institute. From our perspective,” he continues, “the fact that [the Fleischmans’ collection] has been published in large part even before the exhibition at the museum, and no claim has been made against those objects, we considered that it was much better for it to be on public display and available for research than to be kept in private hands. But,” he adds, “I very much hope that this ongoing discussion will evolve in a sense that will exclude from consideration for acquisition any object whose provenance, in the most rigorous sense, would not be clear to define. I’m sure that the Getty’s is a very positive step in that direction.”

Jason Edward Kaufman ©

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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