In a not-so-unexpected move, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed last week to return 40 pieces from its antiquities collection to the Italian government--pieces that Italy claims were looted and then sold to the Getty.
The museum claims it had no knowledge it was buying any looted objects. But the blog Looting Matters points out that when the Getty acquired the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection 1996, which included Italian antiquities, “92% of the objects in the exhibition catalogue of the Fleischman collection [had] no indication of find-spot." According to Looting Matters, 13 pieces from the Fleischman collection have been returned to the Italian government.
A few weeks ago, I posted a quote from a New York Times Magazine article about repatriating antiquities. A Peruvian museum curator said, “In general, anything that is patrimony of the cultures of the world, whether in museums in Asia or Europe or the United States, came to be there during the times when our governments were weak and the laws were weak, or during the Roman conquest or our conquest by the Spanish. Now that the world is more civilized, these countries should reflect on this issue. … I am hopeful that in the future all the cultural patrimony of the world will return to its country of origin."
The reporter, Arthur Lubow, described with a sense of horror hearing in her words “a gigantic sucking whoosh, as the display cases in the British Museum, the Smithsonian, the Louvre and the other great universal museums of the world were cleansed of their contents."
I admit, I have an iconoclastic streak when it comes to art. But, my gut reaction to Lubow’s comment is: “So?" The Getty has been under fire over the past two years since Marion True resigned in disgrace from her post as antiquities curator, but it has worked out a decent compromise whereby the Italian government will loan the museum several important ancient works for display in its refurbished Malibu villa.
This seems just to me: we’re talking about a country’s history. If museums did indeed acquire these objects at a time of conquest, "when governments were weak and the laws were weak,�? and that time has passed, then museums should reconsider how they got their holdings and whether they can justify keeping them.