The true cost of looting has always been hard to measure: how does one account for what is lost? Perhaps this is why some — Americans in particular, it seems — tend to think of looting as a victimless crime.
In truth, looting has many victims — the artifacts lost or damaged during the act itself; the defaced monuments and pockmarked archaeological sites left in its wake. Then there is the more pernicious effect of plunder and the black market it fuels — the corruption of our knowledge about the past.
This is what the Getty Museum confronted in 1984, after the hasty departure of its charming and crooked antiquities curator Jiri Frel. In his decade at the Getty, Frel had used any means necessary to build the museum’s antiquities collection into one worthy of the Getty’s wealth. In 1984, when his criminal activity was discovered amidst an IRS investigation, he abruptly left the country, leaving colleagues at the museum to clean up the mess.
A confidential June 1984 memo from acting antiquities curator Arthur Houghton to museum director John Walsh was an early attempt to account for the damage done by Frel’s collecting practices. We’ve posted it below as part of our Hot Docs series, a effort to publish some of the key confidential files we used while reporting Chasing Aphrodite.
“Changes or additions to the central files registry should be recorded for many of the objects in the antiquities collection,” Houghton noted with characteristic understatement. “The scope of the problem is quite large and involved a number of areas.”
Among the problems Houghton reported:
— Falsified provenance: Many of the ownership histories of objects in the collection were “mythical.” Frel and his trusted dealers had made a parlor game of inventing bogus European collections like “Esterhauzy” to cover the fact that the objects being purchased were fresh from an illicit dig.
— Bogus attributions: Frel had often gussied up the attribution of objects to make them more palatable to the public or the Getty’s own acquisition committee. Roman copies were listed as Greek originals; a 3rd century BC sculpture became the only surviving piece by a Greek master.
— Forgeries: Frel had bought several multi-million dollar fakes, either because he was fooled or (more likely) in exchange for a cut of the purchase price. The most famous is the nearly $10 million Getty Kouros, still on display today at the Getty Villa. As Houghton noted, “Several [fakes] are of major importance and involve very high values and the Museum’s reputation.”
Then there were the lies that mostly hurt the Getty: Frel had convinced the museum to dramatically overpay for objects, with some of the money likely coming back to him in kickbacks. He had inflated valuations of objects as part of a tax fraud scheme and invented phony donors — many still honored on Getty display placards– who he used to launder objects coming into the collection.
In time, some of the most egregious distortions were corrected. The Getty kouros today is awkwardly labeled “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery,” and several other fakes were taken off display. But in many more cases, Houghton noted the damage to the historical record was irreversible. “Much of the suspected provenance and acquisition (including donation) information is fragmentary; and while many records can be corrected in time and with reasonably diligent attention, it will not be possible with reasonable discretion to probe into the true provenance or acquisition history or many objects in the collection.”
The truth, in other words, was lost.
Today, similar distortions and fabrications litter the antiquities collections of America’s great museums, which are tax-exempt because their public mission is education. In doing business with the black market, museums have betrayed that mission and filled their shelves with what amount to beautiful lies.
HOT DOC: June 1984 confidential memo from Arthur Houghton to John Walsh.
Article: “An Art World Detective Story: The Getty’s Head of Achilles” Suzanne Muchnic, LA Times, 11/3/88