Tag Archives: James Cuno

The Getty’s Looted Amber: A Window into the Museum’s Deepening Dilemma

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In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I have a story about Getty Museum’s efforts to find the true origins of its massive antiquities collection.

Here’s how the story starts:

In the wake of a scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum is trying to verify the ownership histories of 45,000 antiquities and publish the results in the museum’s online collections database.

The study, part of the museum’s efforts to be more transparent about the origins of ancient art in its collection, began last summer, said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

“In this effort, and in all our work, when we identify objects that warrant further discussion and research, we conduct the necessary research to determine whether an item should be returned,” Hartwig said in a statement to The Times.

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The review is likely to reveal that problems in the Getty’s collection go far deeper than the nearly 50 looted objects returned since 2007according to Getty records and interviews with antiquity dealers and former museum officials.

Hundreds of objects still in the collection were acquired with false ownership histories aimed at disguising their origins in the illicit antiquities trade, records and interviews show.

The depth of its problem was underscored in November, when the Getty published a catalog of 56 carved ambers, objects that the ancient Greeks and Etruscans used in amulets for the magical properties they were believed to possess.

At first look, “Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum” represents the museum at its finest — decades of scholarship published online in an illustrated catalog that engages the public in a rarely studied artifact of the ancient world.

But records — including internal Getty files — show that the ambers were almost certainly looted from tombs in northern Italy.

medici mugThe relics passed through the smuggling network of Giacomo Medici, who has been convicted in Italy of trafficking in illegally excavated artifacts. Once in the United States, they were donated to the Getty as part of a tax fraud scheme that nearly brought the institution to its knees in the 1980s.

The catalog is silent on this history, which a Getty spokesman says the museum was not aware of at the time, but it does acknowledge the consequences. Because nothing is known of the context in which the ambers were found, little can be definitively concluded about their meaning to their ancient owners.

“Were they purchases, part of a dowry, heirlooms, or other kinds of gifts?” writes Faya Causey, author of the catalog. “Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to whether the ambers were actually possessions of the people with whom they were buried, how the objects were acquired, and in which cultic or other activity they played a part.”

The ambers capture the dilemma that the Getty faces today. Having largely abandoned the purchase of ancient art, it is using its unparalleled resources to restore meaning to objects whose history it had a hand in destroying.

You can read the full LA Times story here.

The Getty’s Study Collection

This is not the first time questions have been raised about the Getty’s study collection, the tens of thousands of artifacts in the museum’s collection deemed not worthy of display but held in storage for scholarly study.

In the 1990s, hundreds of pottery sherds and votive fragments in the collection were linked to a looted archaeological site in Francavilla Maritima. Under Marion True’s leadership, the Getty conducted an exhaustive scholarly study of the material, then returned it to Italy. 

Last year, the Getty quietly returned 150 marble fragments in the collection (88.AA.140 – 88.AA.144) to Italy after evidence emerged that they joined objects found in the same looted tombs of Ascoli Satriano that produced  the Getty’s Griffins and statue of Apollo, which were returned to Italy in 2007. The objects and fragments were acquired in the 1980s from London dealer Robin Symes.

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Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig described the voluntary returns as the result of cooperative research with Italian archaeologists:

In his letter to Director General Luigi Malnati last January, Jim Cuno said, “The Getty acquired these objects as a gift in 1988, in the hope that they would be preserved and studied and eventually reconnected with other fragments of the same objects.  Happily, careful scholarship has led to that result.  Working with colleagues in Italy, Getty curators have determined that the fragments in our possession are very likely to match with vessels from Ascoli Satriano.  It is our hope that the fragments can be examined to ascertain their pertinence, and rejoined to these vessels.” Dr. Malnati invited [Getty antiquities curator] Claire Lyons to join a committee formed as a research collaboration to examine the pieces.

01293001But the Getty’s problems are not confined to the study collection, as was demonstrated last week when the Getty announced it would return a terracotta head of Hades to Sicily. It will be reunited with the statue’s body, which was found at the archaeological site of Morgantina — the same source of the Getty’s looted statue of Aphrodite, which was returned in 2010.

These returns are a reminder of the Getty’s crooked collecting practices, but they also offer some reason for hope. Each return has contributed to important new insights about archaeological sites that were despoiled by looters. The process of joint investigation and return has helped re-create some of the lost context — something Lord Colin Renfrew once described as “Post-disjunctive forensic re-contextualisation.”

Expect to see more if it in the year ahead. As noted in Saturday’s story, a large part of the Getty’s study collection was acquired in bulk donations in the 1970s and 1980s via the looting and tax fraud scheme we describe in Chapter 2 of Chasing Aprhodite. Records show that much of it passed through the smuggling networks of Medici, Hecht, Symes and Becchina, suggesting it will likely end up back in Italy sooner or later.  

The ambers are the latest tip to surface of a very large iceberg. As David Gill noted in November, “the scale of the problem for the Getty is massive.”

Letter to Cuno: Dismissal of Educators Sparks Discord Inside Getty Museum

Last month, more than 50 Getty Museum staff members signed a letter to Getty Trust CEO James Cuno and his bosses, the Board of Trustees, objecting to recent cuts in the museum’s education department. (See below for full text.)

For those not familiar with the Getty culture, grumbling about management has long been a varsity sport there, but such open displays of dissent are more rare.

The anger is focused on Cuno’s decision to eliminate 12 of the Getty’s 17 gallery teachers — a unique position in the museum world that put the Getty in a leading role in arts education. The paid teachers, many of whom had Masters in the arts, will be replaced by volunteer docents, “educated individuals who themselves want deep experiences with art, and who will in turn seek to deepen student and visitor engagement with artworks,” according to the posted Getty job announcements. (We’ve previously written about Cuno’s cuts here and here.)

image from hyperallergic.com

The cuts will allow more visiting students to get guided tours and are aimed at saving some $4 million annually than can be used for new acquisitions of art, the Getty has said. But some from inside and outside of the Getty have questioned the wisdom of targeting educators. (Be sure to read the comments at those links, including the response from Cuno.)

Several museum staffers have contacted us in recent weeks with their concerns, calling Cuno’s less-is-more position “Orwellian.” The running joke among staff is that with Cuno’s focus on acquisitions, the Getty should change its web address from getty.edu to getty.acq. Some have suggested other areas for savings in the Getty’s $270 million a year operation. For example: Timothy Potts, who will take over as director of the Getty Museum in September, recently asked that the Getty replace the furniture in his future office. The existing furniture — which Potts referred to as “Pee Wee Herman furniture” — has been moved out and mid-century modern pieces are being sought to replace them. Also: The Skidata ticket machines being installed in the garage for the new automated parking system were recently sent back to the factory for custom painting, a museum staffer tells us. It appears they come in two standard colors, neither of which matched the Getty’s travertine. (This is not to mention the six-figure salaries of top Getty officials.)

Such examples may seem petty, but it was symbolic excesses amid belt-tightening that fueled the deep anger at Cuno’s predecessor Barry Munitz, who was ultimately driven from his job in 2006 for self-dealing with Getty funds. (Ironically, back then Getty museum officials were also upset that Munitz was too focused on hobbies like education policy, and not willing to dedicate the necessary funds to build the Getty’s collection.) It will be worth watching how these sentiments unfold in the months before the arrival of Potts.

The Getty Board

Here is the full text of the May letter from museum staff, with Cuno’s response below it:

May 4, 2012
Dear Dr. Cuno and the Board of Trustees:

We support and share your objective “to maintain the Museum’s very high standards of excellence in all areas.” While we will strive to maintain these high standards in the face of staffing reductions, the drastic and sudden changes to the Education Department’s structure and philosophy will significantly jeopardize our efforts.

The Getty Museum has been at the forefront in the museum field not only for its excellent exhibitions and collections, but also for our approach to education in both theory and practice. A key aspect of this has always been our professional and highly-trained gallery teaching positions. All of the Gallery Teachers and program staff have extensive knowledge of art history, child development theories, and teaching pedagogy, particularly as it relates to object-based and informal learning. Like all of the professionals in the museum, we stay abreast of the research which determines best practices in our field. Indeed, after 20 years of research, our colleague Elliott Kai-Kee has co-written the book on what exemplary gallery teaching can and ought to be. Across the country, colleagues in other museums have used the ideas articulated in the book as a model for the kind of transcendent experience they want their visitors to have in their own galleries. Yet, we find ourselves suddenly in the midst of deep changes to the Getty’s teaching philosophy without a rigorous analysis of how best to meet the institution’s current priorities without sacrificing quality.

The removal of the Gallery Teachers and the plan to replace them with docents with a mere four months lead time is emblematic of the nature of these changes. The Getty’s professional Gallery Teachers are unique in the museum world and have been symbolic of the institution’s deep commitment to quality educational experiences, particularly for school children. Many of the Gallery Teachers have master’s degrees in art history, fine art or classical studies, all of which result in unique perspectives that provide insight into the complex history or creation of an object. Moreover, the Gallery Teachers’ deep knowledge of the collection, in addition to their status as employees, allows for the much-needed ability to teach any tour at a moment’s notice for any type of audience—from a VIP group to students who are English language learners. We agree in holding our curatorial and conservation staff to the highest standards, and we are disappointed that the front line professionals who interact with the public will no longer be held to the same high standards.

After the staff meeting on April 4, we were optimistic that the administration’s stated support for arts education in LAUSD would translate to a commitment to the quality of students’ experience in our galleries. Instead, the sudden elimination of key staff will result in the hurried substitution of volunteers for experienced educators and an overall reduction of professional development programs for teachers. We are deeply concerned that volunteers who may not have had any prior teaching experience will have a difficult time learning about our collection and the needs of the diverse LAUSD school population within a two-month training period. Unfortunately, the students of LAUSD will once again be the victims of cuts to professional, highly trained teaching staff.

It is deeply unfortunate that the standards that make the Getty Museum a leader in the field of education have now been compromised. In the future, we hope to work together to devise effective, thoughtful strategies for teaching in the galleries that would meet our core mission while maintaining a standard of excellence.

Sincerely,
Getty Staff Members

Cuno responded on June 1 with the following email to museum department heads:

Dear Colleagues,

As you may know, I received a letter from numerous Museum staff members regarding the recent changes in Museum Education. It is very important that everyone have a chance to express their views on decisions taken by Getty administration and I very much appreciated the candor and constructive tone with which the letter was written.

Since there were no typed names and departmental affiliations to help identify the letter’s signatories with any confidence, I am asking you to share this with your colleagues if you think it is appropriate.

Our goal in transitioning from a wholly professional gallery teacher staff to a mixture of professional and volunteer teaching staff was to provide many more guided tours for our school group visitors than we currently provide.

Last years total attendance in our School Programs was 114,000. Of these, 74,000 were Title One students (a U.S. Department of Education program that provides support for school districts with the highest student concentration of poverty) and 40,000 non-Title One. Of the total attendance, only 39,000 experienced guided tours by gallery instructors; 67,000 were self-guided, or experienced the museum and its galleries with minimal assistance from us. An expanded docent teaching corps, carefully selected and expertly trained by our experienced gallery instructors, along with the development of multi-media tours, will enable us to meet our goals within the constraints of our budget.

I have the greatest confidence in our Museum educators. Under Toby’s leadership, they attract and train an excellent corps of volunteer teachers. And given that volunteer-led tours are the norm in our profession, our shift of emphasis positions us to play a leadership role in this aspect of Museum Education. We are grateful to the contributions our gallery instructors have made and will make in this regard. Having the ability to serve more of our visitors with a guided tour at a level of instruction appropriate to their needs was an important consideration as we thought about reorganizing the gallery instruction program.

Thank you again for your letter. And thank you for your good work.

Sincerely,

Jim

Cuno’s Memo: 34 Positions Eliminated at Getty Museum, Mostly in Education, for “More Efficient Operations”

UPDATE 2: An interesting post on the Getty cuts at Hyperallergic ends with this provocative question: “Are museums Universities of Vision or Churches of the Eye?”

UPDATE: The website Art Museum Teaching has posted a stinging critique of the Getty cuts by Robert Sabol, president of the National Art Education Association. Sabol calls the Cuno’s decision to cut gallery educators “a significant step backward” and “out of step” with the museum field. You can read Sabol’s full letter here.

In the comments to the post, Cuno has responded (via Getty PR chief Ron Hartwig) saying, “This new approach will not reduce our educational programs or the quality of teaching available at the Museum.” Two educators have also commented, questioning the accuracy of Cuno’s statements. One notes, “At the Getty Villa alone, four out of five Gallery Teachers, the Education Specialist for Gallery Teaching, the Education Specialist for School and Teacher Programs, and the Manager of Education were all laid off. Obviously, when one considers the volume of work these seven people accomplish on a daily basis, there is no question that the quality of programs is already severely affected, and will continue to diminish!”

This morning, Getty CEO James Cuno sent out a memo to Getty Museum staff announcing the elimination of 34 staff positions. Ten positions were eliminated today, and Cuno is looking for  another 24 staffers to volunteer or face layoffs on May 7th.

Monday’s move is the latest in Cuno’s shakeup at the museum, which began in February with the dismissal of Thom Rhoads, assistant director of administration, and Guy Wheatley, a manager at the Getty Villa. At the time, Cuno said the cuts would “allow the Museum to focus more on collections and exhibitions and less on administrative matters and site-wide operations.” Some saw it as a move to concentrate power in the Getty Trust, which oversees the Museum.

Monday’s cuts target the museum’s education department, which has long been known for its use of staff gallery teachers rather than volunteer docents. That approach has been “rethought to be more cost-effective and to reach more children through a robust docent program,” Cuno told staff this morning. Volunteer docents will now be the norm it appears. Last year, the department served more than 860,000 visitors to the Getty Center and Getty Villa. Recent evaluations of the program’s activities can be found here. The Getty’s support for busing students from poor communities will not be affected.

UPDATE: I’m told of the 17 gallery teachers now employed, only five will keep their jobs. Managers positions at both the Getty Center and Villa were also cut.

UPDATE #2: The LA Times has details on the cuts here.

Here’s the full memo. We’d welcome your thoughts and comments below or anonymously via ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com.

Dear Getty colleagues,

Just a short while ago, I emailed Museum staff to let them know the outcome of the meetings I have held over the last two months with the Museum’s leadership team to ensure its resources are being deployed in the most effective manner. The objective throughout that process was to maintain the Museum’s very high standards of excellence in all areas, while at the same time determining where we can realize savings through more effective and efficient operations.

The discussions during the review process were open and candid, with many ideas developed and exchanged, and we always were guided by a commitment to preserving the museum’s core mission:

●   Building the Museum’s collection by acquiring works of art of the greatest importance;
●   Preserving its curatorial ambitions (research, exhibitions, and scholarly publications);
●   Strengthening its conservation work; and
●   Serving a large and diverse public through educational programs and online access to information about its collection, curatorial and conservation research, and curricular resources.

The actions being taken will not affect curatorial or conservation staffing.  Programming for students, families and adults will remain in place, but the program has been rethought to be more cost-effective and to reach more children through a robust docent program.  We will maintain the number and ambition of our excellent exhibitions.  We will increase our efforts to fill priority gaps in collection documentation and improve our visitor experience by providing greater access to information.  I have challenged all of our managers to leverage technology in our work to enhance the visitor experience.

Changes at the Museum will include the transition in September from the primary use of gallery teachers to docent-led gallery experiences so that more visitors, particularly students, will have a Getty-led tour.  There will be no reduction in the number of school visits, including students from Title One schools.

In addition to the reduction in gallery teachers, some administrative and project-focused staffing positions in the Education Department will be reduced, along with staffing in Exhibitions and Imaging Services.   We will also seek volunteers from among our Visitor Services staff to better align staffing requirements in that department.

The changes will result in 10 layoffs, and we will ask for volunteers for 24 additional positions that are being eliminated.  Meetings were held this morning with affected staff.

The departure of valued members of the Getty Museum’s staff is difficult, but I want to assure you that each of those leaving will receive a very generous severance package identical to those offered by the Getty in the past. All of those laid off will receive their regular pay and benefits during a 60-day non-working notice period, and  will be eligible to receive two additional weeks of pay for every year of credited service over four years.  If an employee elects to take the coverage, the Getty will pay up to three months of COBRA payments to extend health benefits.  The Getty will also provide a generous allowance for outplacement services, and of course, pay all accrued and unused vacation and personal hours.

The layoffs being announced today will be handled in two ways.  Some staff will be notified today that their position has been eliminated and they will have the option of remaining at the Getty until Wednesday to transition their responsibilities and say farewell to colleagues.  In other cases, we will ask for volunteers.  On Monday, May 7th, volunteers will be notified if their offer has been accepted.  Those individuals will have the option of remaining at the Getty until Wednesday, May 9th to transition responsibilities and say farewell to colleagues.  If we do not receive sufficient volunteers, additional layoffs will occur on May 7th.

I will be meeting with Museum staff tomorrow to further explain the review process and answer their questions.  These changes are difficult, but I am confident they will result in an institution that is more focused on its core priorities and better positioned for an uncertain economy and lower endowment returns.

Jim

James Cuno on Timothy Potts and the Getty’s New “Appetite for Risk”

Getty CEO James Cuno discussed his “appetite for risk,” his decision to hire Timothy Potts as the Getty’s next museum director and his vision for the museum in an interview on Warren Olney’s Which Way LA program on KCRW.

Chasing Aphrodite’s Jason Felch and CultureGrrl Lee Rosenbaum were also guests on the program. The interview came on the same day that Cuno announced a shakeup at the Getty museum that consolidated administrative powers under the Trust  and led to the dismissal of two senior staff members.

Listen to the full program here:


Cuno Shakeup at the Getty: The Memo

UPDATE: As the Getty announced cost cutting measures, new fundraising efforts and the dismissal of two senior museum staff members, we found this tidbit on the Trust’s updated financial disclosure: Timothy Potts will be paid $690,000 a year as Getty Museum director, and will receive a signing bonus of $150,000. As already reported, CEO James Cuno earns $728,000 per year in base salary plus a $20,000 per month housing allowance, plus a one-time bonus of $150,000 for moving expenses and $250,000 in signing bonuses, plus a $500,000 deferred comp payment if he stays until 2016.

Here is the memo Getty Trust CEO James Cuno sent to museum staff regarding forthcoming changes across the institution:

Dear Museum Colleagues,

Among the most important responsibilities for the trustees, including the Trust President, is establishing strategic priorities for the J. Paul Getty Trust and ensuring that the resources available to us are focused on those priorities.  Another important responsibility is to assist the program directors in attracting additional resources, where possible, to achieve our goals.

As I discussed at the all-staff meeting in January, these responsibilities are especially important in the current economic environment when we cannot rely on growth in the value of our endowment investments to fund new ideas, projects and acquisitions.  That is why constant attention to finding better and more effective ways to accomplish our work is critical, and it is one of the reasons the trustees approved a plan for the expansion of development activities here at the Getty.

You know that I have had meetings with the leadership of each of the Getty’s programs to better understand the goals and aspirations of each of the programs as well as their operations since my arrival last August.  Likewise, I have been working directly with various Museum departments to review their operations and policies.

It is very possible that these reviews will result in changes by the end of the fiscal year. Even as this review process goes forward, however, I believe it is appropriate to make some immediate changes that will allow the Museum to focus more on collections and exhibitions and less on administrative matters and site-wide operations.  The savings created by these changes will remain within the Museum to address new Museum priorities that will be established by Tim Potts when he arrives in consultation with the trustees and me.

First, we will move Visitor Services to the Trust reporting to a newly named department, Visitor Services and Security.  This makes sense since these staff and our dedicated volunteers serve the entire Getty, not just the Museum.  We will also combine the Museum’s Events Department with the Trust’s events team, in the Facilities Department.  And we will move the operation of the Museum stores to the Trust, reporting to the Controller.  This relieves the Museum of the administrative oversight of the stores, as well as the obligation to meet the stores’ annual revenue target.

As a result of these changes, combined with the earlier relocation of Publications to the Foundation, the Museum’s administrative responsibilities have been reduced substantially.  There will no longer be a need for an Associate Director of Administration at the Museum, and regretfully, I must report that Tom Rhoads, who has held this post since 2006, will be leaving the Museum.  Tom’s assistant will be placed in an open position at the GRI.  The job of Museum Manager/Villa will also be eliminated and Guy Wheatley will be leaving the Museum.

I am very pleased that Tim Potts will join the Museum as its Director September 1.  By completing the review of Museum operations before then, we will be able to welcome him to a Museum that is focused directly on its core mission, with its financial and staff resources deployed in a more efficient and effective way.  I believe it is important for Tim to be able to focus on our collections, exhibitions and programming from day one, and not be distracted by administrative and financial functions that can be more efficiently handled by the Trust.

- Jim

LA Times: “Antiquities issue rears head with Getty leaders Potts, Cuno in place”

Here is Jason’s article from Saturday’s LA Times on Timothy Potts’ views on the antiquities issues:

Over the last five years, the J. Paul Getty Museum has earned a reputation as a leading reformer on a topic that has embroiled American museums in scandal for the past decade: the acquisition of recently looted antiquities.

After evidence of the museum’s longtime participation in the illicit trade was uncovered by Italian and Greek investigators, the Getty agreed to return 49 of its most prized pieces of ancient art, cultivated collaborative relationships with those countries and adopted a strict acquisition policy, setting a standard that has been adopted by museums across the country.

But come September, when Timothy Potts starts as director of the Getty Museum with Getty Trust CEO James Cuno as his boss, the institution will be led by two men who opposed the adoption of some of those reforms.

Cuno has denounced repatriation claims of looted antiquities as “nationalistic” and argued against placing limits on museum purchases of objects with an uncertain origin. Potts, whose appointment Cuno announced this week, has echoed some of those views. He played a central role in establishing lenient acquisition standards for American museums — which were eventually abandoned — as a member of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, which sets ethical guidelines for art museums.

A highly respected museum director and Oxford-trained archaeologist, Potts was well positioned to wrestle with the looting issue. From 1983 to 1989, he was co-director of the University of Sydney’s excavations in Pella, Jordan. Later at Oxford, he conducted research in Iraq, and was among the most outspoken museum directors to decry the looting there in 2003.

Participants in the museum directors’ group deliberating new ethical standards in 2004 recall Potts as intelligent, persuasive and open to hearing others’ arguments. But the positions he advocated often put him at odds with advocates of reform and with fellow archaeologists, who criticized the willingness of museums to purchase objects whose murky ownership histories suggested they were likely the result of looting.

Potts also had brushes with the issue as director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, where he was director from 1998 to 2007.

In late 2000, Potts approved the acquisition of a rare Sumerian statuette for $2.7 million. The 15-inch alabaster figure was an ancient masterpiece from the cradle of civilization, the region Potts had specialized in while studying at Oxford. It was to be an important contribution to the Kimbell’s small but highly regarded collection.

But shortly after the statue arrived at the museum, court records show that Potts took the unusual step of returning it to the dealer and asking for a full refund.

Publicly, Potts said that he wanted to free up money for other acquisitions. But he later testified that he had learned the dealer — Hicham Aboutaam, owner of the New York City antiquities gallery Phoenix Ancient Art — was under investigation by the IRS, and decided against buying from him.

Soon, though, Potts changed his mind about doing business with Aboutaam. After receiving repayment for the Sumerian statuette in November 2001, Potts moved to acquire a $4-million Roman torso he had admired on an earlier visit to Aboutaam’s gallery on East 66th Street in Manhattan.

Five days after the Kimbell board approved the purchase, the museum received a federal grand jury subpoena for museum records related to Aboutaam.

Aboutaam had been targeted in a sweeping investigation of the illicit antiquities trade. Several months earlier, Italian investigators had raided the dealer’s Swiss warehouse and seized dozens of antiquities. (All were later returned.)

The Kimbell abruptly abandoned the acquisition of the torso, sparking two breach of contract lawsuits by Aboutaam.

When asked about the two abandoned acquisitions this week by The Times, Potts and the Kimbell declined to comment. But in 2002, Potts told Art & Auction magazine that he had decided to pursue the Roman torso after learning the IRS investigation of Aboutaam was “benign.”

The lawsuits were ultimately dismissed. Aboutaam was arrested in 2003 and charged by U.S. authorities with smuggling a looted antiquity from Iran and making a false customs declaration. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $5,000 fine.

While the Kimbell controversy was still unfolding, Potts played a prominent role in formulating a policy on how American museums should handle questions about ancient art with unclear ownership histories.

As a member of a task force of museums directors between 2002 and 2004, Potts allied himself with Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who opposed putting limits on collectors and museums. Potts and De Montebello eventually championed a 2004 policy that allowed museums to collect ancient art as long as they could demonstrate it had been out of its country of origin for a decade.

The position struck some on the task force as effectively sanctioning the acquisition of looted antiquities. And it proved out of step with the times when, a year later, Getty antiquities curator Marion True was indicted by Italy for trafficking in looted antiquities, some of which had been acquired under a Getty policy that was stricter than the one Potts and De Montebello supported.

Soon, the antiquities controversy grew into a full-fledged scandal, with Italy and Greece demanding the return of some of the most prized objects in American museum collections. American museums have since returned more than 200 looted objects to Italy and Greece, valued at up to $1 billion.

Potts first met Cuno while chairing a 2006 AAMD task force on loans of archaeological material. Cuno had recently taken the reins of the Art Institute of Chicago and, like De Montebello, was an outspoken critic of attempts to limit the collecting of antiquities. Cuno and Potts became like-minded allies in the heat of a growing controversy.

The policy resulting from the 2006 task force allowed museums to accept loans of objects even if their ownership histories were clouded “because of their rarity, historical importance and aesthetic merit.” Potts told the New York Times that the focus on the role of museums and collectors in fostering the destruction of archaeological sites was “misplaced.”

By 2008, the policies Potts had advocated were replaced with a stricter one that required objects to have an ownership history dating back to 1970. It emulated the position of the Getty Museum, which had been hardest hit by the antiquities controversy.

Asked how he felt about operating under a policy he had opposed, Potts said in an email Thursday that he “completely respects the Getty’s antiquity policy,” which he called “increasingly the national standard.”

“I have persistently emphasized the need to do more to protect sites and contexts on the ground before the looting takes place,” he said, adding, “Perhaps the nearest thing to a certainty is that whatever policy we have in place today will be seen to have been flawed in the future.”

Potts and Cuno have signaled that their priority will be to build the Getty’s collection in new directions and shift attention back to the Getty Villa, where the museum’s antiquities collection is displayed.

Might the Getty expand its antiquities collection into ancient Near Eastern art, the area of Potts’ specialty? Cuno said in an interview Thursday that he “couldn’t rule it out.”

That could put the Getty back in business with Hicham Aboutaam, who, despite his past legal worries, continues to be a leading dealer of antiquities.

In an interview this week, Aboutaam praised the selection of Potts, and said he held no grudges from the past lawsuits. “It’s rare to find a museum director with such a sophisticated eye for quality,” he said.

He has similar words of praise for Cuno, who as director of the Art Institute acquired antiquities from Aboutaam as recently as 2009. That same year, Aboutaam voluntarily returned 251 antiquities to Italy, valued at $2.7 million, conceding they were likely the product of illicit excavations.

With Cuno and Potts in charge, the dealer couldn’t help but wonder: “Do you think the Getty will now buy more?”

Kimbell Art Museum Responds To Questions About Ancient Cup Acquired Under Timothy Potts

Timothy Potts

The Kimbell Art Museum has decided to list one of its prized possessions — a Greek cup acquired in 2000 under then-director Timothy Potts — on a public registry of ancient art with unclear origins.

The move comes after Jason raised questions about the cup while reporting an article for Saturday’s LA Times on Potts’ role in the controversies involving American museums and the looted antiquities trade discussed in Chasing Aphrodite. This week Potts was named as the next director of the Getty Museum.

The cup in question is from the 5th century BC and was masterfully painted by the Greek artist known as the Douris Painter. The Kimbell describes it as “one of the finest surviving vases of the early Classical period.” The scene on the cup depicts the death of Pentheus, a mythical king of Thebes, being torn limb from limb by a group of drunken followers of Dionysus.

The museum lists the cup’s ownership history as follows: (Elie Borowski [1913-2003]) by 1977; sold to a Japanese oil company, probably late 1980s; (sale, Christie’s, New York, June 12, 2000, no. 81); purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 2000.

As David Gill noted in his review of James Cuno’s book Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities, the vase was published by Robert Guy in “Glimpses of Excellence: A Selection of Greek Vases and Bronzes from the Elie Borowski Collection” (Toronto Royal Ontario Museum) and highlighted in an interview with Potts for Apollo Magazine (vol. 166,October 1,2007).

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

The earliest documented owner of the cup, Elie Borowski, has been linked to the illicit trade by Italian and Greek investigators. His name appears  in Robert Hecht’s memoir as a client of convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici and on a handwritten organization chart of the illicit trade seized by Italian authorities in 2001 (on right). Marion True told Italian authorities that Borowski had also been a client of Gianfranco Becchina, the Sicilian antiquities dealer (also named on the chart) who is now on trial in Italy.

In correspondence with Potts and the Kimbell, we asked why they were confident the cup was not the product of an illicit excavation after 1970.

Kimbell spokeswoman Jessica Brandrup initially said: “The Museum has not been contacted by the Italian or the Greek government in regards to works in the Museum’s permanent collection. The purchase of the Greek vase was legitimate and remains a highlight in the Kimbell’s permanent collection.”

Potts said via email, “We did due diligence on the object and were confident that it fell within the AAMD and other U.S. guidelines then in force.” (Worth noting: Four years after the acquisition of the cup, Potts played a central and somewhat controversial role in re-writing those AAMD guidelines, as we note in Saturday’s LA Times story.)

When we pushed the Kimbell for additional information about the cup, we received this statement:

“When the Douris cup was purchased at auction in 2000, the Kimbell Art Museum, like most US museums, held antiquities to the standard of the US 1983 ratification of the 1970 UNESCO treaty.

We believe that the piece can be documented as being outside its country of finding before 1983. Subsequent to its purchase, the AAMD recommended in 2008 that museums apply the 1970 standard instead.

We don’t have information on the cup’s whereabouts between 1970 and 1977, as is evident in the provenance described on our website. To further comply with the AAMD recommendations, we will post it on the AAMD Registry of New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art.

Thank you for calling this discrepancy to our attention.”

The AAMD object registry was created in 2008, when American museum directors decided the 2004 policy championed by Potts and others was not adequate. As described on AAMD’s website, the 2008 changes sought “to affirm more clearly and tangibly its members’ commitment to helping protect and preserve archaeological resources worldwide, and to strengthen the principles and standards used in making decisions regarding the acquisition of archeological materials and ancient art.”

The AAMD’s object registry lists recent acquisitions of ancient art whose ownership histories cannot be traced back to 1970, the date of the UNESCO anti-looting treaty. The goal is “to make information about such objects freely available to students, teachers, visitors, source countries, officials, as well as possible claimants.”

The registry also contains 10 objects acquired by the Chicago Institute of Art, many of then under director James Cuno, who is now Getty Trust CEO.

Cheat Sheet on Timothy Potts, New Director of the Getty Museum

Timothy Potts

On Feb 14th, Getty CEO James Cuno announced to staff that Timothy Potts had been named as the new director of the Getty Museum, the wealthiest art museum in the world. He will start in September.

Potts comes with an impressive provenance. He was trained as an archaeologist at the University of Sydney and Oxford, where he received his doctorate in Near Eastern art and archeaology. He dug for several years at Pella in Jordan, where he was co-director. And after a stint at Lehman Brothers, Potts directed the National Gallery of Victoria (1994 – 1998), the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth Texas (1998 – 2007) and most recently the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Despite his background in field archaeology, Potts has more recently held some controversial views on the collecting of unprovenanced antiquities. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:

As director of the Kimbell, Potts helps build the antiquities collection of the Ft. Worth museum, which has an acquisition budget on par with the Getty Museum. Among his acquisitions are some with questionable provenance, such as this Greek cup by the Douris Painter, which the Kimbell bought in 2000. The cup can be traced back to 1977 and Elie Borowski, an antiquities dealer (now deceased) known have trafficked in recently looted objects.

In 2003, Potts was outspoken about the looting in Iraq. He appeared on Charlie Rose Show with Philippe de Montebello here.

James Cuno

In 2004, Potts was a key player in the deliberations over the AAMD’s revised antiquities collecting policies, which you can find here. The policy allowed museums to collect unprovenanced (and likely looted) antiquities if they had documentation going back 10 years. It was a controversial position that would be modified a few years later amidst the antiquities scandal we write about in Chasing Aphrodite.

In 2006, Potts chaired a taskforce for the AAMD that devised new guidelines for accepting loans of antiquities. The policy stated:

Archaeological material and works of ancient art for which provenance information is incomplete or unobtainable may deserve to be publicly displayed, conserved, studied, and published because of their rarity, historical importance and aesthetic merit…

Many saw it as a loophole that allowed museums to continue displaying looted antiquities. Potts defended the policy in an interview with the New York Times:

“If [the ancient art] goes on view with other like objects, then scholars get to see it and study it; the public gets to come; the claimant, if there is one, gets to know where it is and file a claim,” said Timothy Potts, the director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the chairman of the task force that drew up the guidelines. “Who has lost in this process?” Some museum directors argue that the current wave of antiquities claims against museums and collectors actually resulted from active efforts by museums to display the works and publish articles about them.

For Mr. Potts, an archaeologist by training, the recent attention to the role of collectors and museums in fostering the destruction of archaeological sites is misplaced. The real issue, he argued, is insufficient incentives in countries like Italy and Greece for discoverers of objects to report their finds.

“So much of the pressure is focusing on the wrong end of the chain,” he said. “I think there should be much more done to stop the looting at its source.”

Later that year, Potts and Cuno organized a public symposium to address the controversy over museums and the illicit antiquities trade.  Many of the leading voices in the heated debate participated. The goal was “to explore how museums have, and can responsibly continue to, protect, interpret and exhibit archaeological material and works of ancient art.”

May 2007: Potts was interviewed on NPR about looting and the illicit antiquities trade. He said:

“There were empires, there was war, there was booty taken. To the victor went the spoils, and the museums of the world still represent the dispositions of some of those historical events. We are now living in this different world, and we are requiring more provenance history, and if we think it was recently excavated, we’re just not going to buy it.”

In Jan 2010, Potts gave a tour of the renovated antiquities galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Video and story here.

Dr Potts said: “The Fitzwilliam’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities is of international significance, so I’m delighted that we now have a superbly redesigned space in which to display it to its full potential.

“This new presentation, which is based on recent research and conservation work, will offer many fresh insights, not only to new visitors, but also to those familiar with the collection.”

In Feb 2010, Potts and de Montebello were among several experts who advised the Leon Levy Foundation about an effort to publish “the trove of unpublished information from important ancient world sites excavated under ‘partage’ agreements.”

Given their pro-collecting positions in a museum world that has largely turned in a different direction, it will be interesting to see how Cuno and Potts decide to deploy the Getty’s wealth in the coming years.

Chasing Aphrodite in Washington DC: 1/23 @ Steptoe, 1/24 at National Press Club

We’re off to Washington DC for two great events. If you’re in the area, please join us for back-to-back evenings of lively discussion about the state of American museums and the black market in looted art.

Reminder: Both events require an RSVP via the links below. 

January 23: 6:30 pm at Steptoe and Johnson

The Society for the Preservation of Greek Heritage and the American Friends of the Acropolis Museum will host Jason for an evening lecture and book signing at the lawfirm Steptoe and Johnson.

Details: 6:30 pm at 1330 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC. RSVP by sending an email to: classic.heritage@verizon.net


January 24th: The National Press Club.

Jason (in person) and Ralph (via phone) will speak about Chasing Aphrodite, the press and transparency at American museums with former Getty antiquities curator Arthur Houghton and Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Museum of Art. Our moderator will be James Grimaldi, investigative reporter at the Washington Post. Q&A and book signing to follow. (We’ll be done in time for you to watch POTUS give the State of the Union address at 9pm.)

Details:  6pm at The National Press Club. 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor. Open to the public, $5 dollars for non-members. Tickets and details available here.

Los Angeles Readers: In you’re in Los Angeles on Monday, Jan 23, be sure to check out Getty CEO Jim Cuno’s talk at the Petersen Automotive Museum. He’ll be defending museums against those who say they are the trophy cases of imperialism and promoting his new book, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum. Details here.