28 January 2012

Deconstructing Aphrodite: the Getty Art Museum, looted antiquities and the art trade

The 4th century BC marble sculpture of winged griffins at center of controversy, acquired illegally by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1985
Source: NPR
An interesting event took place on Tuesday 24 January at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The theme of this cultural evening, organized by Keri Douglas, the highly-accomplished energetic chief executive of Nine Muses International, focused on the international scandal surrounding the J. Paul Getty Museum’s unabashed no-holds barred acquisitions of illegally excavated Greek and Roman antiquities. To make a real long story short, Marion True, a senior curator of antiquities at the Getty, was left holding the bag and has been the subject of a number of lawsuits, especially in Italy, where she was forced to stand trial.
Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA
Source: Wikipedia
Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, CA
Source: Wikipedia

The main speakers were Arthur Houghton, formerly of the Getty and a character in the saga of the looted antiquities, Gary Vikan, director of the Baltimore-based Walters Art Museum, and a self-proclaimed reformer amongst his museum director peers, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, co-authors of the book, “Chasing Aphrodite” who led the investigation into the illicit Getty acquisitions, and James Grimaldi, a Washington Post investigative reporter who has undertaken a fair number of inquiries into corruption, high and low.

Jason Felch
Source: Chasing Aphrodite
Ralph Frammolino
Source: Chasing Aphrodite
The story itself is worthy of a mini-series. The comments by all involved, however entertaining and mildly caustic, reaffirmed some long-held truths and realities about the international art market, museums, the search for truth in ownership, and the knotty question of ethics—whether one can be ethical and be a collector, dealer, museum director or curator.

Marion True
Source: The Art Newspaper
Gary Vikan believes in the capacity of a museum to be anchored in “experience” as opposed to “ownership.” Or, put another way (hopefully more clearly), American museums are obsessed with the idea of acquiring and owning pieces, sometimes at any cost, simply for the selfish, narcissistic pleasure of owning, of being the proprietor of something beautiful and beguiling. That insatiable quest for owning gets in the way of the mission of sharing cultural objects with the general public and encouraging heretofore unseen objects to come to the light of day and be exposed for the time to the gaping eyes of the incredulous and starstruck public.   The antidote to "ownership" is "experience" and this can only occur if museums focus on the idea that a carefully-constructed network of mutually-beneficial relationships anchored in long-term loans and exchanges can encourage museums to dig into the second basement and bring to the surface long-forgotten items which are worthy of adoration and can be shared with like-minded institutions worldwide, thus favoring relationships with smaller and less recognized institutions that hold unknown treasures of the past. That is a nice idea, but one that eschews the fundamental problem, which is how the object entered the collection in the first place. By displacing the discussion away from the source of the object and its potentially illicit itinerary into the collection of a museum, the end result simply becomes one whereby the past should be left … in the past and we ought to focus more on the all-inclusivity of the global community of custodians of great art sharing their wealth with the masses. How grand!

Arthur Houghton, on the other hand, was irreverently charming, despite his cynical embrace of the art world’s megalomania for unfettered opacity in trade and demanding to be left alone so that it can continue to play to the tune of fifty billion dollars’ worth of globally-traded assets per annum, mostly under cover of darkness. He predicted, perhaps rightfully so, that nothing human could bring this dynamic, insolently unregulated marketplace to heel and to abide by those boring and annoyingly pesky rules of ethical behavior that require objects to be properly sourced and not to be traded if they are in fact “hot,” as in stolen.

Last but not least, our two co-authors, Felch and Frammolino, made a compelling case for why the Getty Museum’s officers and senior staff should have been dragged in chains before Federal judges on charges of conspiracy to commit grand theft and other violations that come with aiding and abetting international trading in stolen cultural property. But, as was pointed out by various members of the audience and the speakers themselves, no one in their right mind would dare take on the esteemed leadership of the global arts community. Even more interesting, Felch argued that American museums have been abusing their tax-exempt status for decades, a privilege that allows them to acquire and display without much oversight at all from external agencies.  Should they be held accountable for their uses and misuses of their tax-exemption? or is that simply another fruitless windmill?

What’s the lesson here?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. This would be the view of a cynical realist.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, would be the view of the cautious, thanklessly persistent and guarded pessimistic optimist. Persistence, perseverance, and relentless patience through constant prodding, investigation, and clinging to uncompromising standards of transparency and truth in reporting—those combined, with help of some deities, should be able to move the rock of Sysiphus further up the hill, and closer to its inevitable tipping point. So, we wish.