A FINE MESS IN MALIBU
Charges of smuggling overshadows
the refurbished Getty Villa.
by: Cathleen McGuigan
T HE OLD GETTY VILLA IN MALIBU ALWAYS HAD A WACKY HOLLYWOOD VIBE. A replica of a grand Roman house that was buried when Mount Vesuvius blew in A.D. 79, it looked so fabulously fake in the southern California sunshine that you half-expected some B-movie actor to stroll out in a toga and start orating. And it was a kind of stage set, a backdrop built by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty in 1974 to house his eclectic collection of old-master paintings, French furniture and classical antiquities. The old man died two years later, and when the super-rich Getty Museum moved to the modern Richard Meier designed complex in Brentwood in 1997, the Malibu villa was closed for a massive make-over. Eight years and $275 million later, it’s finally reopening this week as a splendid new home—and free public museum—for the Getty’s great collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. A perfect ending—just roll the credits.
Except that this story turns out to have a dark side: charges of smuggling and tomb raiding. While Getty officials are popping champagne corks at the opening, the person most deeply involved in revamping the villa—along with the architectural firm of Machado and Silvetti—is standing trial in Rome. Marion True, the museum’s former curator of antiquities, faces up to 10 years in prison for illegally trading in classical artifacts as she built up the Getty’s collection. While True and the museum maintain that they didn’t knowingly buy tainted art—and the Getty foots her legal bills—Italian prosecutors have launched a year long trial, with plans to call 200 witnesses. “It is a tragedy that this is happening as the villa is opening,” says a former colleague of True’s. “She may have made some bad decisions, but her presence at the Getty for more than 20 years was that of a serious scholar.” At the heart of the case is a 1939 law in Italy that forbids the export of antiquities. For decades, it was poorly enforced as shady middlemen continued to buy from Italy’s web of tombaroli (tomb raiders), and ancient statues, vases and other artifacts made their way to elegant dealers in Paris, London or New York. Museums and wealthy collectors often looked the other way if a great piece came on the market with a shaky pedigree. Last year the Italian government successfully prosecuted art dealer Giacomo Medici, after police raided his warehouse in Switzerland and seized hundreds of artifacts and thousands of Polaroid shots of freshly excavated classical objects, many still caked with dirt. A few of those pieces, Italian officials maintain, are now in the Getty.
True retired from the Gctty last October—not because of the trial but because, as the Los Angeles Times reported, she had a conflict of interest in securing a $400,000 loan to buy a house in Greece. London dealer Robin Symes and his partner helped True get the loan. Symes, meanwhile, had sold the Getty a huge Greek statue of Aphrodite that, the Italians say, was dug up in Sicily—and they want it back.
By making an example of True and her co-defendant Robert Hecht, another antiquities dealer who sold to the Getty, Italian prosecutors are, in effect, putting the squeeze on other American museums. Last November, the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art flew to Rome to discuss certain antiquities in the Met of questionable origin; museum trustees are now reviewing a proposal from Italy on the issue. Could True’s trial have been avoided if the Getty had cut a deal? Though the museum has sent six pieces back to Italy since 1999—three of them just as True’s trial began—it ignored a request three years ago to open negotiations on some 40 disputed objects, according to the Italian Culture Ministry. Now the Getty’s new director, Michael Brand, is reaching out to Italian authorities. The ethics issues raised by True’s trial, of course, are casting a shadow over the spectacular renovation of the Getty Villa. In doubling the old Getty’s space, the architects also placed the villa in a new setting, with boldly modern outdoor passageways, a new entrance pavilion and an amphitheater. But the biggest changes are inside the museum, where the sumptuous new galleries are now awash in Roman colors and, in many cases, open to natural light. But if the Italian government gets its way, a few of those great classical pieces won’t be basking in the California sun much longer.
With ; Barbie Nadeau, Eric Pape
and Jednnifer Ordonez
January 30, 2006. (Pg. 61)
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