January 25, 2006

Getty LA antiquities showcase reopens under cloud

By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Getty Villa, the Malibu
antiquities showcase inspired by an oil billionaire's love of
ancient Rome, reopens on Saturday after an eight-year
renovation -- and the timing could hardly be worse.

The long-awaited reopening of the spectacular ocean-side
Villa, regarded as one of the cultural landmarks of Los
Angeles, has been clouded by allegations that one of the
world's richest art institutions used its muscle to acquire
looted artifacts.

After a $275 million face-lift and expansion, the Getty
Villa now houses the J. Paul Getty Museum's collection of some
44,000 antiquities. The Villa, modeled by oil baron J. Paul
Getty on the first-century Roman Villa dei Papiri, also has a
new mission as a center for the study of the arts and cultures
of ancient Rome, Greece and Etruria.

Yet Marion True, the woman who spent 10 years planning the
new showcase, was forced last year to quit her job as the
Getty's antiquities curator and is on trial in Italy.

The charges -- that True conspired to receive stolen goods
-- have become a landmark case not just for the Getty but for
the international art trade.

"The reopening comes at an unfortunate time for the Getty,"
said Kelly Devine Thomas, who has covered the True case for the
respected international magazine ARTnews.

"It brings into focus the worldwide debate about who should
be caring for these objects, how they got to these museums and
the amount of money that American museums have paid to acquire
objects that might not have been legally exported," she said.

True and the Getty have denied ever knowingly acquiring
items looted from Italian archeological sites but the Getty in
November returned three of the disputed treasures to Italy.

The Italians are seeking the return of another three dozen
or so disputed treasures and Greek authorities also want four
antiquities from the Getty collection which they say were
removed illegally from their country.


Some works under scrutiny, notably a towering limestone and
marble statue of Aphrodite, grace the galleries of the revamped
Villa, officials confirmed.

The Getty's troubles appear to have had little effect on
public enthusiasm for the reopening of the Villa, whose
fountains and courtyards are an oasis of calm in bustling Los

Admission is free, as it is at the mountaintop Getty Center
that opened a few miles away in 1997, but visitors need to book
in advance and tickets are booked solidly until April.

"There is no denying that this has not been the best of
years for the Getty," said Getty spokesman John Giurini. "But
when people come to the Villa we have gotten incredibly
wonderful feedback from people who think it is absolutely
gorgeous. I think at a certain point people look past the
current situation."

The Getty Villa has a new 450-seat outdoor arena, seismic
underpinning, new windows, a new glass collection, extra
parking and many upgrades largely invisible to most visitors.
The New York Times called it "an exquisite work of

Saturday's opening has none of the hoopla that marked the
1997 launch of the modernist Getty Center, which houses
European paintings including Vincent van Gogh's "Irises."

"We got a lot of criticism for the opening of the Getty
Center and being flamboyant and so it was always our intention
to open (the Villa) low-key. It has nothing to do with the
situation we find ourselves in right now," said Giurini.

Tomb raiders have looted ancient sites in Italy and Greece
for centuries. But Italy has conducted an aggressive campaign
in the last 10 years to recover its heritage and has accused
eight other U.S. museums, including New York's Metropolitan
Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts of owning
stolen artifacts.

"It puts it all in a queasy context. Two or three years ago
(the reopening) would have been a great trumpeted affair but in
this context people are not sure whether to rejoice," said
Devine Thomas.