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The Getty Museum retreats from the antiquities market

In a radical change of policy, the Getty now favours archaeological conservation, research and education over collection building

London

The Getty Museum is almost entirely pulling out of the antiquities market. Hitherto an active buyer in this field favoured by its late founder J. Paul Getty, the museum will now only be acquiring and displaying pieces with a documented provenance, which automatically excludes most items on the market today.

In the past, the museum attracted international criticism over two acquisitions in particular. A sculpture of a kouros bought by the previous curator of antiquities, the Czech Jiri Frel, is widely considered to be an Italian-made fake and while this has not been conclusively demonstrated, one thing is certain: the documentation accompanying it when it was sold is a total fiction.

Another piece, a sculpture of Aphrodite from Magna Grecia, bought by the present curator, Marion True, in 1988, aroused much speculation in Italian archaeological circles and newspapers that it had been illegally excavated in Sicily.

At the beginning of her buying activities in the museum, with legal advice, she had developed the practice of checking with all possible source countries before acquisition, on the assumption that they would notify her if a piece was stolen or illicitly excavated. This works on the premise that all items on the market are innocent unless proven guilty, assuming, unrealistically, that governments are aware of all illegal excavations on their territory. The museum’s new policy tacitly recognises that the opposite is more likely to be true, that is, that most items without a water-tight provenance are more likely to be illegally excavated or exported or both.

This new, radical decision by the Getty Museum, which is in contrast with the hawkish collecting policy of museums like the Metropolitan in New York, will at the least cause these other museums in the US to reflect on their position. It brings the Getty in line with the major European museums such as Berlin and the British Museum which for decades have had a policy of not buying or borrowing objects without a provenance.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 54 December 1995