The nouveau riche John Paul Getty Museum and the older and highly respectable Metropolitan Museum of Art are both hiding their blushes – or doing their best to hide them – over a scandal that has erupted following the arrest and extradition of Marion True, former Curator of Ancient Art at the Getty. Equally damaging is the abrupt retirement of Barry Munitz, president and chief executive officer of the John Paul Getty Trust, who, without explanation, departed without the several million dollars of severance pay given to his predecessor. Indeed Mr Munitz actually paid a quarter of a million to the Trust to release him from any claims regarding his activities on behalf of the Trust!
It appears that for quite some time the Trust and the Met have been buying antiquities that they knew or had reason to suspect were the result of illegal excavations or even outright theft. These include some of the finest pieces in the collections of the two institutions – vases signed by famous Greek or Roman artists, fabulous sets of silverware, and even complete statues. In one case 15 silver vessels acquired by the Met were recognised by Dr Bell of the University of Virginia as coming from the town of Morgantina which he had excavated some years previously.
For six years the Met refused to allow him to examine the objects closely, but in the meantime an Italian dealer, Giuseppe Mascara, confessed to conducting a clandestine dig at Morgantina. Bell obtained – with some difficulty, it must be admitted – permission from the Italian government to carry out investigative work at Morgantina, where he found two holes, just where Mascara had said they were – and at the bottom of one of the holes was an Italian coin dated to 1978!
When he was finally allowed to handle the vessels Dr Bell quickly found an inscription proving that they had belonged to one of Morgantina’s prominent families. To its credit the Met promptly confessed to its sins and entered into negotiations with the Italian government. As a result they made an agreement whereby they returned the objects they had acquired illicitly, but for the next forty years they will receive, every four years, a new set of similar objects on loan from the Italian government collections.
I am pleased by such a sane and civilised resolution of the dispute, but not overly pleased. It means that for the next forty years – and longer if the agreement is extended – some of the finest objects of Greek and Roman art will be of no fixed address. Instead of being able to say that such-and-such an object is in the XYZ museum and plan a trip to view as many of these objects as possible, one will have to check that it is not on loan elsewhere.
Even more frustrating is the fact that parents who remember seeing a particular object will not be able to take their children to see it because by then it will have been returned to the museum from which it came. I know how annoying it is to lead your children confidently into a museum, only discover that the object which you vividly remember as standing over there surrounded by this and this, is now at the other end of the building and in an entirely different context. Now the object will be in an entirely different country, one beyond the reach of a family day trip.
It would be far better for governments and museums to open up their collections and not just allow but encourage the making of replicas. The original can remain in a fixed place for the scrutiny of scholars, but your average person who enjoys history and antiquity can see the very best the world has to offer at the end of a short trip to his local museum.
In fact, this is why many of the most famous collections were set up. Patrons of the arts – particularly architecture – made collections of drawings and of objects in order to encourage artists and architects in their homeland to copy the desired style. This is why one of London’s most famous museums, the Victoria and Albert Museum, has an extensive collection of plaster casts of famous works of art by men such as Cellini. Even Cambridge University maintains a complete collection of reproductions of famous scuptures, including the Dying Gaul.
It is true that tourism to the land where these objects originate might suffer, but I think it would not suffer much. There is no comparison between seeing an Egyptian tomb fresco copied on the wall of the British Museum and seeing the same thing in the heat and claustrophobia of an Egyptian tomb. Those who had the time and the money would still flock to the Middle East or the Andes, to Greece and China, to soak up the atmosphere of those antique lands, but in the meantime those less fortunately endowed with those resources would still be able to enjoy and be improved by the finest productions of the human mind. Museums would then truly be fulfilling the purpose for which they were established.
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