The J. Paul Getty Museum has spent the last five years making amends for acquiring looted antiquities and trying to distance itself from a culture of rapacious and corrupt collecting.
Stricter rules on acquisitions have been put in place. Nearly 50 objects in the museum's possession — valued at many millions of dollars — have been returned since 2007 to their homelands. This month, Getty officials announced that they would voluntarily return to Sicily a terra cotta head of Hades, framed with lush curls, after the museum's curators realized it matched fragments of curls from an archaeological site that has been heavily looted in the past.
Now the museum is in the midst of an ambitious project to verify the ownership history and origins — the "provenance" — of its entire collection of 45,000 antiquities. Some are valuable and famous works of art; others are mere pieces of objects. Many are for study and not display. Eventually all the information will be available online, and some of it is already is.
The Getty should be commended for making public not just the provenance of its antiquities but also the scholarly analysis the museum has done on some of the objects. Getty director Timothy Potts said the museum is making this a priority in an effort to be as transparent as possible. And putting out information publicly, he noted, may lead to more information coming in from other sources.
That's already happened with the Getty's online publication of a catalog of amber pieces that are believed to be Etruscan: A recent report in the Los Angeles Times went through old documents, records and notes that the Getty says it has not seen, concluding that the ambers "are almost certainly looted" from tombs in northern Italy.
Potts says the curators know only that the pieces were donated to the museum in the 1970s and early 1980s, and that before that the trail of ownership is lost. But there are plenty of news reports that the donor — a businessman who has since died — had a long and tangled involvement with looters, smugglers and schemers in the art world. That doesn't prove the ambers were illicitly obtained, Potts said. "The evidence needs to relate to the particular object. It can't just be that it passed through the hands of a looter."
True, but it's suspicious, especially given the museum's checkered history when it comes to looted art. It would be smart for Getty officials to look aggressively into any new information on the provenance of the ambers — and Potts says he would welcome specific details regarding the history of their passage from the ground to the Getty.
We are glad to see the museum honorably returning things that it discovers were ill-gotten. And we understand that it is a challenging task to uncover the sources of antiquities. New information prompted by the publishing of the online database — which Getty officials say they welcome — may help make that task more doable.
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