Tag Archives: Jim Cuno

Decoding Eakin: Behind ‘Extortion’ Claim, Fear the Floodgates Have Opened

imgresIt is no coincidence that The Great Giveback, Hugh Eakin’s lengthy argument against the repatriation of looted antiquities, landed in The New York Times on Sunday, just as the directors of America’s leading art museums gathered in Kansas City for their annual meeting.

A key item on the agenda in Kansas City that day was the museum community’s handling of looted antiquities, an issue that has roiled the art world for more than a decade.  The Assoc. of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has repeatedly tried to put the issue to rest, adopting policy changes in 2001, in 2004 and again in 2006 as the controversy metastasized into a full bore international scandal. In 2008 the AAMD revisited the issue yet again, adopting acquisition guidelines that required a clear ownership history dating back to 1970, a position that put them in line with most archaeologists.

The 2008 policy was heralded as a turning point for the American museums and a victory for reformers like the Getty’s Michael Brand and Max Anderson, now in Dallas, who felt it was time for American museums to sever their ties to the black market. But those reforms are under attack. Museum directors are seeking to reverse the policy, which drives a wedge between them and wealthy patrons whose antiquities collections can no longer be donated in exchange for tax write-offs. These dissidents have made ample use of the policy’s major loophole, which allowed museums to violate the 1970 rule if they posted the acquisitions on the group’s Object Registry with a justification of why.

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As Lee Rosenbaum recently noted, sixteen museums have posted nearly 600 objects there, many with no clear justification for flouting the 1970 rule. The Virginia Museum of Fine Art, for example, acquired an unprovenanced collection of 31 pieces of ancient gold jewelry, saying it violated the 1970 rule so the objects could be “studied, displayed and publicized.” Last August, the Cleveland Museum posted a Roman portrait bust of Drusus (right) that has no documented ownership history prior to 2004 and was sold to the museum by the Aboutaam brothers, antiquities dealers who have been convicted of charges related to trafficking in looted art. “Museums should still be buying antiquities, and we shouldn’t shirk that responsibility, and I think it’s almost an ethical responsibility,” Cleveland museum director David Franklin told the New York Times. (Readers of Chasing Aphrodite will recognize the quote as a nearly verbatim echo of what the Getty’s John Walsh said in 1987 to justify the acquisition of the looted statue of Aphrodite.)

In short, the Object Registry has become a tool for laundering suspect antiquities. Once objects are posted there, museum officials believe, the statute of limitations clock starts ticking, giving foreign governments just a few years to investigate, build a case and file a claim before their time expires and the objects emerge sparkling and clean. More broadly, the series of reforms taken by many American museums in recent years — which include taking claims seriously and sending looted antiquities back to the countries from which they were stolen — are under attack from within.

That brewing fight is the context for Eakin’s polemic, which notably takes aim not at source countries so much as museums like the Getty and Dallas that have embraced reforms and begun to proactively search their collections for problematic objects. With Philippe de Montebello retired and Jim Cuno forced to moderate his view by the Getty board, Eakin has emerged as the spokesman for the dissidents.

Recent events have only raised the stakes, for the controversy over looted antiquities shows no signs of going away. The depth of the problem with American collections of Classical antiquities is just beginning to emerge, with more revelations certain to come as researchers comb through the seized archives of the illicit trade’s most prominent middlemen. Meanwhile, over the past year the search for loot in American collections has gone global, with countries like Cambodia, India and Turkey bringing claims. Museum directors know better than anyone that these claims are the tip of a very large iceberg.  

To the ears of some in the art world, that sound is the creaking of the floodgates swinging open.  

Spurious Claims

Eakin’s piece, then, is best understood as part of a broader effort to convince the public that claims involving looted antiquities are baseless and those who cave in to them, cowards. The reforms have not only failed to stop looting (a “scourge” often given lip service by museums, but never more.) They have “spurred a raft of extravagant new claims against museums — backed by menacing legal threats.” Unless American museums grow a backbone and fight these foreign claims to the death in court, Eakin suggests, someday soon they will be empty of ancient art.

As he has done in the past, Eakin relies on a mosaic of selective facts and careful omissions to cobble together his argument. Many of its most serious flaws have already been rebutted. Lee Rosenbaum — who herself is often skeptical of repatriation claims — denounced it as a “distorted, often mistaken opinion piece” and concluded Eakin was “an extremist on the anti-giveback side.” Archaeologist Paul Barford was less kind, saying the piece “illustrates quite clearly the robber baron attitude of entitlement, hypocrisy, xenophobia and supremecism when it comes to appropriating for their own uses other peoples’ cultural property, that internationally is losing America friends.” Cultural property lawyer Rick St. Hilaire noted that Eakin’s argument “overlooks the general principle that stolen property cannot be owned lawfully or that contraband antiquities (smuggled antiquities) are somehow legitimate.” Speaking in Eakin’s favor, I could only find three voices: Peter Tompa, the lobbyist for collecting interests; blogger Judith Dobrzynski, who calls the piece “pitch-perfect” but acknowledged a conflict of interest in the subject; and LA Times art critic Christopher Knight, who celebrated the piece’s “nuance” in a tweet.

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Let me focus on something I think Eakin gets almost right — his summary of recent events. (See below for his major omission.) Other archaeologically rich nations have been inspired by Italy’s success. In bringing their own claims, many have been less disciplined than Italy, which supported its demands with evidence — much of it photographic — gathered during a decade-long criminal investigation. But here Eakin misses an opportunity to articulate the key flaw of some recent repatriation requests — the conflation of historical gripes with the modern criminal behavior of looting, smuggling and fencing. For example, most of the objects Turkey is demanding from American museums were acquired since the 1960s and have no documented ownership history before that, suggesting they are likely the product of illicit excavations. Whether Turkey has evidence to support those claims remains to be seen — unlike Italy, the Turks are making their case to museums before sharing it with the public. But Turkey has also asked several European museums to return objects that were removed nearly a century ago, sometimes by archaeologists operating with government permission. And to increase their leverage, Turkey has denied digging permits to foreign archaeologists who played no role in the alleged wrongdoing. All of this — coupled with Turkey’s own history of plunder — has led to a skeptical reception of claims against American museums that may or may not be backed by clear evidence. And with good reason.

Likewise, Greece and Egypt have frequently included colonial-era claims with requests for the return of recently looted antiquities. Some of those historical claims may carry ethical weight, such as the reunification of the Parthenon marbles. But more often they blur the moral and legal clarity of claims involving modern looting. The same can be said for occasional statements that all things made in Country X should be returned to County X, which discredit the nations that make them.

So, there is legitimate reason for skepticism of repatriation claims. But these are not the arguments Eakin chose to make. Instead, he invents a picture of “terrified” museums being cowed by powerful foreign governments into giving back America’s innocently-acquired art. This description of the situation makes for an almost laughable reversal of reality.

American museums have long had the power when it comes to claims of restitution — the power to ignore claims, to withhold information and to create or defend false ownership histories. For decades, they have wielded this power freely, dismissing polite requests from foreign countries while continuing to buy looted art with impunity. For years, the Getty blew off Italian objections to their acquisitions of obviously looted art by simply refusing to respond to inquiries from senior government officials. The Met refused to allow scholars to look at its collection of looted Greek silver. Turkey has requested the return of the Sion Treasure from Harvard since the 1960s to no avail, while the university published a book about the treasure that detailed its illegal excavation and included a photo of the looter’s hole from which it was taken. Yet Eakin laments that today, 40 years later, Turkey has decided to begin withholding loans from Harvard until it responds. These are what he calls “blatantly extortionary demands.”

What motivates repatriation claims from source countries is not a desire for a few more pieces of ancient art. The basements of their museums overflow with the stuff. What they want is respect.

Let’s consider Eakin’s innocent acquisitions. If there has been a lesson from the last decade of controversy — and if there is one point made clearly in Chasing Aphrodite — it is that American museum officials were far from innocents. In case after case where internal museum records have come to light — via lawsuits or leaks to reporters — there is clear evidence that museums officials were aware they were buying recently looted antiquities. Met officials knew the Lydian Hoarde was looted and sought to hide it, as Turkey learned during its six year legal battle for their return. Dietrich von Bothmer kept a map of the precise tomb in Cerveteri from which the Euphronios krater had been looted, as we learned from Marion True’s sworn deposition. The Boston MFA’s longtime antiquities curator Cornelius Vermeule was close personal friends with Robert Hecht and acquired hundreds of looted objects from him, as the Italian investigation and Hecht’s own journal revealed.  

Giacomo Medici during a visit to the Getty Museum

Giacomo Medici during a visit to the Getty Museum

The Getty case, our most revealing window into a museum’s antiquities acquisition process, is startlingly clear: “We know it’s stolen,” Harold Williams said in a confidential 1987 meeting about the acquisition of suspect antiquities. “Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?” Marion True discussed the contents of looted tombs in correspondence with Giacamo Medici, and declared the golden funerary wreath “too dangerous” before greed got the better of her. Her predecessor Arthur Houghton visited Medici’s Swiss warehouse and sought his help tracing the Getty’s griffins to tombs in Southern Italy. Houghton’s predecessor Jiri Frel ran a provenance forgery workshop out of the antiquities department and acquired thousands of looted objects through a tax fraud scheme whose scope is just now becoming apparent.

In other words, the evidence amassed to date makes abundantly clear that many of our highly educated antiquities curators and museum directors were not total dupes when it came to their role in the illicit antiquities trade.

They knew.

This is Eakin’s most glaring omission and the reason why repatriation is — at times — a reasonable response to foreign claims. They are the pound of flesh that must be paid for our collective cultural sins.

What standard?

How much evidence is needed to establish that an object is the product of the illicit antiquities trade and should be returned to the country from which it was stolen? For all the debate about acquisition policies, there has been nearly no debate or policy papers on this question, which is far more pressing concern facing museums today.

Eakin reminds us repeatedly that museums have returned contested antiquities under no legal order and often with no knowledge of their precise findspots. Such statements remind me of a phone conversation I had in 2006 with the Met’s de Montebello. He told me that the Met was prepared to give up its beloved Euphronios krater if Italy could present “irrefutable proof” of the precise spot from which it had been looted. Soon after, the Met’s general counsel informed him that there was no such legal standard — not even in cases of capital murder. Montebello left it to a spokesman to call back and sheepishly clarify that under the law, the vase could be seized by US law enforcement based upon probable cause. That is the legal standard for civil forfeitures. Apparently Eakin did not get the memo.

Orpheus mosaic in situThe cases that Eakin suggests are spurious are still being negotiated, and we don’t yet have access to the full array of evidence. But what has come to light suggests they are far from fickle. In the case of Cambodia’s claim on the Khmer statue in the Norton Simon, the precise find-spot is well-known and not disputed — the statue’s feet remain in placed today at the temple complex from which it was looted. In the two cases where claims from Turkey have been resolved — Dallas and Penn — there was compelling evidence. Penn acquired the Trojan gold  in 1966 from Hecht, whose ties to Turkish looters are well documented, and scientific tests later found it was consistent with samples found in Turkey. In the case of the Orpheus mosaic, investigators found Polaroids of the mosaic in situ when it arrested the alleged looters.

Eakin’s call to legal arms betrays both his ignorance of the law and of museums’ dilemma. There is a very good reason why museums have voluntarily given back nearly $1 billion in looted antiquities with no legal fight — it was in their self-interest. As cultural property attorney Rick St. Hilaire notes, taking these cases to court “is fraught with danger.”

LACMA's Michael Govan

Museums hoping to fight in court had better make sure they have no damaging internal records detailing their acquisition of looted antiquities, for those are likely to come out in discovery, as Sotheby’s recent learned. They had better also be sure that no other objects in their collections have dubious origins, because their legal fight will inspire a thorough examination of their entire collection. This was the lesson learned by the Getty, which, as Eakin notes, chose to fight rather than accept the voluntary return of six clearly looted antiquities. Several years and millions of dollars in legal fees later, they ended up returning more than 40.

Eakin laments the cost to museums of dealing with repatriation claims. The cost of litigation is far far higher. This is not to mention the public relations consequences, which concern museums far more than a few pieces of ancient art. The true and lasting damage to American institutions over this past decade has not been legal fees or lost antiquities. It has been the growing public perception that they are engaged in an illegal activity that, at its heart, is a deep betrayal of their public mission. If they follow Eakin’s advice, they will double down on that betrayal.

Greek deal

The enlightened solution that Eakin seeks is the one being taken by the institutions he targets — rebuilding trust with the public and foreign governments by taking claims seriously, engaging in proactive research of their collections and sober evaluation of the evidence and when appropriate, returning a token of the stolen property in their collections in exchange for a collaborative relationship with a potential adversary.

As Eakin well knows, this approach is not “making great art ever less available.” It is providing museum visitors with remarkable rotating exhibits of the world’s great treasures while moving both source countries and museums toward a future where questions of ownership recede and the focus becomes cooperation and education. 

Chasing Aphrodite 2012: The Year in Review

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Happy New Year from Chasing Aphrodite.

It’s been a year and a half since our book was published, and during that time the hunt for looted antiquities at the world’s museums has gone global. Over the past 12 months we’ve revealed new information about objects looted from Turkey, Cambodia, India, Latin America, Italy and beyond. Visitors from 150 different countries came to read our weekly posts. (Those interested in a daily feed of relevant links and commentary should like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.) Our focus here is on scoops, and over the past year we broke several significant stories about the illicit trade, some of which led to the return of looted antiquities to the countries from which they were stolen.

Here are some highlights:

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

The year started with a bang in January with the arrest Arnold Peter Weiss, a prominent Rhode Island surgeon and collector of ancient coins who was arrested at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for felony possession of allegedly ancient coins that had been recently looted from Sicily. Our scoop a few days later revealed that Weiss had told a confidential informant that he knew he was dealing in looted coins:  “There’s no paperwork, I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago,” he said, according to the criminal complaint. We later traced Weiss’ donations to RISD and Harvard University Art Museums; revealed his business partner’s connection to the Getty; exposed the role of federal investigators in the case; and covered his guilty plea to selling what turned out to be clever fakes.

Princeton antiquities curator Michael PadgettAlmagia Returns: In January we also wrote about American museums returning a new wave of looted antiquities to Italy after the objects were tied to the criminal investigation of Italian antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia. The Met returned more than 40 vase fragments from the private collection of its former antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer. The Princeton Museum returned 160 objects and fragments, and stonewalled questions from the press about those returns. (The museum’s curator Michael Padgett, above, has been named as a target of the investigation.) In February we began tracking objects museums had acquired from Almagia and found several at the Dallas Museum of Art. We also traced Almagia objects to the Boston MFA, the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Indiana University Art Museum and the Getty Museum. David Gill identified one additional Almagia object at the Tampa Museum. The Dallas Museum announced in December that five of the objects we had questioned would been returned to Italy.

Orpheus Mosaic

Orpheus Mosaic

Turkey’s claims: In March, we broke the news that Turkey was seeking the return of dozens of allegedly looted antiquities from American museums. We also listed the specific objects being sought at those museums, including: 10 objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum; 18 objects from the Schimmel Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 21 objects at the Cleveland Musuem of Art; and the Sion Treasure at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks. Since then, the Dallas Museum of Art has already agreed to return a looted mosaic to Turkey, and Bowling Green State University has signalled its intention to do the same. Negotiations with the other institutions are on-going, and we expect to have an update soon.

Koh Ker wrestlerCambodia vs. Sotheby’s — The Battle for Koh Ker. In April, we began following the legal battle between the US government and Sotheby’s over a 10th century Khmer statue allegedly looted from a temple complex deep in the Cambodian jungle. Government prosecutors, suing on behalf of Cambodia, alleged that Sotheby’s knew the statue was looted and and withheld the information from potential buyers, as well as government investigators. The auction house has denied those claims. Damning internal emails, however, revealed Sotheby’s knowledge about the statue’s suspect origins and the likely controversy its sale would cause. Also named in the case is a companion statue now at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, whose feet remain in situ in Cambodia. The man at the center of the case is Douglas Latchford, a British collector/dealer based in Bangkok whose name has been linked with sever pieces of suspect Khmer antiquities. In recent months we’ve traced Latchford’s objects to the Denver Museum of Art, the Kimbell Museum and the Met. The outcome of the case could prove an important precedent for legal claims against looted antiquities in the United States.

James-CunoJim Cuno’s shakeup at the Getty: In May, the board of the J. Paul Getty Trust hired James Cuno to lead the organization. It was an odd choice — The Getty was still recovering from a devastating international scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, and had enacted a new acquisition policy that respected foreign ownership laws. Cuno had long been a vocal critic of those laws and advocate for the type of unfettered collecting that had gotten the Getty into trouble. One of Cuno’s first moves was the elimination of 34 positions at the Getty Museum, including two respected veterans and 12 professional gallery teachers who were replaced by volunteer docents. We broke the news, published Cuno’s memo to staff and covered the fallout. We also wrote about his decision to hire Timothy Potts, another advocate of unfettered collecting, and raised questions about Pott’s acquisition of a 5th century BC Greek cup at his previous post, the Kimbell Art Museum. In response to our questions, the Kimbell announced they would post the vase on the AAMD’s registry of ancient objects with unclear ownership histories. They never did.

PS1_TL.2009.20The Bourne Collection: Also in May, we featured a guest post by Roger Atwood on the Walter’s newly acquired collection of unprovenanced Pre-Colombian Art. Atwood described the “long and checkered history” of the Borne collection, which is sprinkled with fakes and at least one piece suspected of having been looted from Sipan, Peru.

subhash kapoorSubhash Kapoor Case: In July we began writing about the investigation of Subhash Kapoor, the New York based antiquities dealer specializing in Indian antiquities and temple idols. After federal agents raided his New York warehouse, we  identified more than 240 objects acquired from him in museums around the world. In December, federal investigators announced they had seized some $150 million in antiquities from him and consider Kapoor “one of the most prolific commodities smuggler in the world.” The case is on-going.

This Polaroid seized from the warehouse of dealer Giacomo Medici shows the Getty Museum's Statue of Apollo shortly after it was looted from a tomb in Southern Italy.

This Polaroid seized from the warehouse of dealer Giacomo Medici shows the Getty Museum’s Statue of Apollo shortly after it was looted from a tomb in Southern Italy.

WikiLoot: Finally, this year we announced our plans to crowd-source the study of the black market in looted antiquities. We’re still in the development phase of the project — raising money, building partnerships and considering the structure of the site. But WikiLoot, as we’re calling the project for now, has already attracted substantial interest and media attention from the Guardian, the Economist, CNN, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and others. This spring we’ll be developing a prototype of the site and reaching out to more potential partners. Stay tuned for updates.

Thanks for reading. Our best wishes for 2013, and we hope you will join the hunt!

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

Hot Docs: Marion True the Crusader

Former Getty Antiquities Curator Marion True

One of the most scathing rebukes of the collecting practices of American museums in recent memory came not from a grumpy archaeologist, a nosy journalist or an overzealous foreign prosecutor. It came from one of the museum field’s rising stars: Getty antiquities curator Marion True.

In June 2000, True delivered a gutsy speech to an audience of museum peers that denounced them for relying on “distorted, patronizing and self-serving” arguments to justify their collecting of ancient art. Over the course of the next hour, True dismantled the various justifications museums had long used to buy ancient art that was almost certainly looted.

The speech, whose full text we’ve posted and annotated here, is remarkable not just for True’s scathing remarks but also for their venue: the annual gathering of the Association of Art Museum Directors. The group is the museum profession’s most powerful, consisting of representatives from the country’s largest and wealthiest collecting institutions. As such, the AAMD wields immense clout on matters of institutional policy, including collection practices.

Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Met

Under the sway of former directors Philippe de Montebello of the Met and James Cuno of the Art Institute of Chicago (now CEO of the Getty), the AAMD had long resisted the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which calls for import restrictions and international cooperation to stop trafficking in illicit antiquities. Instead, AAMD’s guidelines were riddled with caveats and loopholes that allowed member institutions to buy undocumented antiquities as long as the pieces were artistically “significant.” In her speech, True was calling out the power structure of American museums.

James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust

Her speech was inspired by an earlier panel at Columbia University on the Elgin Marbles. The discussion “had nearly devolved into a fistfight” when a fellow panelist suggested the Parthenon sculptures needed to remain the British Museum because the Greeks were “unworthy custodians and therefore did not deserve to have it” [sic]. “As the three front rows of the audience were primarily of Greek nationals or Greek Americans, this statements did not go down very well,” True noted dryly.

True said the debate had caused her to re-trace the evolution of what had become an increasingly nasty debate about cultural patrimony that pit foreign officials and archaeologists against American museums, dealers and collectors. “Given the seemingly noble intentions that inspired the foundation and development of American Art museums, how have they now come to be so often in direct conflict with the source countries and the academic communities that work on cultural heritage?”

Her answer laid the blame squarely at the feet of American museums, which had used similarly “demeaning arguments” to justify their acquisition of marquee objects and to brush off the concerns of foreign countries. She listed the most common arguments, many of which are still used today:

“–Because the contemporary population was ethnically not the same people as the creators even thought they inhabit the same territory;

–Because the police force in the source country does not do enough to protect its patrimony and maybe even is in collusion with the smugglers;

–Because art historians in the country are not up to the job of studying their own patrimony but have had to look to the British German and American scholars for leadership;

–Or because the national laws governing the protection of cultural properties are repressive since they do not allow the free trade in the objects that US laws allow and,

–Or most perplexingly and inflammatory, in the case of Italy, because Mussolini had continued to enforce the laws instituted in the 18th century to protect Italian artistic heritage, that we would be enforcing the laws of a fascist regime.”

“Surely,” True said, “we should not have to rely on such distorted, patronizing and self-serving observations to justify collecting ancient art in this country.”

Next, she turned her sights on dealers and collectors, who still “vehemently denied” the extent of looting that has been clearly documented by archaeologists and governments. Their claims that the illicit trade was small were “contradicted by the evidence,” including their own political machinations to gut American laws prohibiting the import of such objects. It was time to accept that most undocumented antiquities came not from “old European collections,” as dealers and museums were fond of claiming, but from recent chance finds or illegal excavations, True said.

Likewise, the claim made by Sothebys and other auction houses that sellers preferred not to reveal provenance information “flew in the face of logic” because such information would only increase an object’s value. And the common practice of asking governments for evidence of whether a piece had been looted “conveniently ignores” the fact that, by definition, such objects are “undocumented,” she said.

She concluded with a knock-out punch: “Most museums have long preferred to consider objects innocent until proven guilty,” she said, citing the Getty’s own 1987 acquisition policy and the writings of James Cuno while at the Harvard Arts Museums. “But experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely—if not certain—that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.

“It has been our unwillingness to do so that is most directly responsible for the conflicts between museums, archaeologists and the source countries.”

In one fell swoop, True had laid bare the cynical path of many museum masterpieces—a path few insiders had ever been willing to publicly acknowledge.

But as powerful and succinct as True’s presentation was, her listeners could have been forgiven a measure of skepticism. While it represented one side of Marion True – the crusader for reform — they knew another: the accomplished curator and competitor who for a decade had used those very same tactics to fill the Getty with some of the best undocumented pieces in the world. Indeed, True’s intimate knowledge of museums’ efforts to navigate the illicit trade was based on her personal experience.

As it happened, the day after True gave her speech a judge in Switzerland ruled that Italian officials could take possession of hundreds of Polaroids and documents that had been seized in a 1995 raid of an antiquities dealer’s Geneva warehouse. The Polaroids showed scores of looted artifacts as they appeared fresh from the ground. Eventually Italian investigators traced the greatest number to the Getty and Italian prosecutors started planning a prosecution of Marion True.

A Polaroid of the Getty's Statue of Apollo showing it soon after being looted

Soon after, an internal Getty probe found similar photos in True’s own curatorial files showing, in the words of the Getty’s outside counsel, “objects in a state of disrepair or in a location from which they may have been excavated.” The Getty’s attorney concluded it would take little for the Italians to link True to a conspiracy or to support a claim that the curator “knew or should have known that many objects acquired by the Getty were illegally excavated from Italy.”

Among their best evidence, he noted, would be True’s own 2000 speech before her peers at the AAMD.

Getty Museum Returns Two Objects to Greece, Signs Collaboration Deal

The Getty Museum agreed on Tuesday to return two antiquities to Greece and formalized a broad cultural agreement that will lead to loans, joint research and other collaboration with the art-rich Hellenic Republic.

The agreement mirrors similar deals struck with Italy and Sicily in the wake of a negotiated settlement to claims the Getty had for years purchased ancient art looted from those countries. The Getty resolved its differences with Greece in 2007 with the return of four contested antiquities, including a golden funerary wreath. Today’s agreement formalizes that accord.

The returned objects are:

Fragments of a grave stone showing a seated woman (73.AA.115). Under former antiquities curator Jiri Frel, the Getty purchased the object for $20,000 in 1973 from Paris antiquities dealer Nicolas Koutoulakis, who has been linked to the illicit trade in Italy’s investigation. It adjoins a funerary relief currently in the Kanellopoulos Museum in Athens.

An inscribed tablet describing the religious calendar of Thorikos. (79.AA.113) It was purchased by the Getty in 1979 for $50,000 from Jacques Roux, whose name is not familiar to us. Currently on view in the Getty Villa, the object “describes sacrifices and festivals celebrated in Thorikos, in southeast Attica, in honor of local deities and heroes,” according to a Getty press release.

For those keeping score, the Getty has now returned 6 objects to Greece and 43 to Italy since 2005.

A few things worth noting about the deal, which the Getty touts as a “landmark agreement”:

– It was enthusiastically signed by Getty CEO Jim Cuno, who has long been an outspoken critics of repatriations. Before coming to the Getty in August, Cuno railed against repatriation claims from nations like Greece, calling them “nationalistic.” Today he’s shown in a Getty photo grinning broadly as he seals the deal with the Greek minister of Culture Pavlos Yeroulanos, who greatly impressed Getty officials. In an earlier post we asked: “Will the Getty change Cuno, or will Cuno change the Getty?” Looks like we’re starting to see an answer.

– The objects being returned were never demanded by Greece, were not the result of new information coming to light, and do not bear clear signs of being looted. (Thought the role of Koutalakis is certainly suspect.) Indeed, Getty Museum officials recommended their return, according to Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig. Scholars have long known the grave stone fragments matched a stele in a Greek museum. And the inscription’s cultural importance isn’t new. The returns were orchestrated by interim Getty antiquities curator Claire Lyons and her predecessor Karol Wight during informal discussions with Greek colleagues earlier this year.

Our take: The Getty should be applauded for these moves, another step in its embrace of cultural collaboration. But we’re curious: does this set a new precedent for returns by the Getty? For years, the Trust insisted it can only return objects if confronted with compelling reasons, such as evidence of criminal origins. Officials have gone as far as suggesting the museum’s tax exempt status could be in jeopardy if they relinquished objects without a such a cause. We see no compelling demand for return here. Re-uniting fragments and returning culturally important material are laudable moves, but why now? And what else at the Getty should be returned on similar grounds?

Hartwig, who we caught on a bad day, didn’t have a clear answer.