Poacher turns gamekeeper at the Ashmolean

Getty `genius' and `cultural rapist' George Goldner is to run the Oxford museum.
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He is the man the British art establishment has feared and resented for years. They called him a cultural rapist, a milch cow. But now George Goldner - the American who used a $140m account, the biggest acquisition budget a gallery has ever had, to make California's Getty Museum one of the most powerful in the world - is becoming part of that very establishment by joining Oxford's Ashmolean Museum.

The Ashmolean may have just pounds 100,000 to spend on great works, but its new director, Mr Goldner, has been appointed to one of the most coveted curatorships in the world. Founded in 1683 to house the collection given to Oxford University by Elias Ashmole, the Ashmolean also has an incomparable collection of Old Masters, including the largest number of Raphael drawings of any museum, as well as works by Turner and the pre-Raphaelites. The director answers to the dons of Oxford University, who help maintain the museum's reputation for academic excellence.

It would be hard to think of two jobs more different than that of Ashmolean director, running a scholarly institution amid Oxford's golden Cotswold stone colleges, and head of the rich, acquisitive Getty, perched high above the Pacific at Malibu.

As curator of paintings and drawings from 1979 to 1993, Mr Goldner's shopping list included many of the works at the centre of British "heritage" controversies, including 20 Old Master drawings sold in the early Eighties by the Duke of Devonshire, and an pounds 11m Turner seascape offloaded by the Royal Holloway College to raise funds.

He was the answer to auctioneers' prayers. Whenever there was a major sale, Goldner was sure to be there, mild-mannered and deceptively sleepy- eyed like Alice in Wonderland's dormouse, either bidding in person or discreetly twitching his instructions to dealers representing him. "Most of the job was plotting the next purchase," he says.

The London dealers Agnews profited up to pounds 5.8m from selling him a portrait of Pope Clement VII by Sebastiano del Piombo, and he was the reason the record for an Old Master painting tripled to $32m. In 1989 Goldner saved Sotheby's from the embarrassment of being left holding Van Gogh's Irises when, after bidding the world record price of pounds 30.2m for it in 1987, the Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond failed to pay up.

By the time he left his post in 1993 for a job in the Old Master drawings department at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Goldner had turned the Getty into one of the most impressive - and most feared - in the art world.

So why move to the Ashmolean? Certainly, money can't have been a top priority. Mr Goldner has taken a sizeable drop in salary to the pounds 43,000 a year being offered for his new post. Goldner is in no doubt. "It is a very great honour. The Ashmolean is a great institution."

Now 53, Goldner spent nine years teaching at various American universities before taking up his post at the Getty. During his term there, he produced what Professor White describes as "two very good volumes on the collection". Meanwhile, Goldner insists: "As far as heritage issues are concerned, I am now on the other side. I will work just as fervently for the Ashmolean as I did for the Getty."

His appointment is even being cautiously welcomed by his erstwhile enemies. "He is someone I can happily hand over to," says the museum's outgoing director, Professor Christopher White.

Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery, said: "George Goldner is a great drawings expert which, of course, is appropriate for the Ashmolean. He has had an outstanding career... and we are all extremely happy that he has decided to take up a post in Great Britain."

The welcome being given toGoldner is something of a turnaround in the British art world. The last time an interview board tried to place an American in a major British museum post - the directorship of the National Gallery - there was an almighty outcry, and a British citizen was appointed instead.

One observer who believes the Ashmolean has been particularly astute is Derek Johns, Sotheby's former Old Masters expert and now a dealer: "George knows a lot about how the system works. The man is also a genius, with a wonderful eye for quality. He converted what was a dreary collection of drawings on the West Coast into a most sensational collection. He has done almost the same thing at the Met on a much smaller budget. Since he left, the Getty has really gone downhill... he will probably bring the Ashmolean into the limelight in the same way."

Anne Heseltine, wife of the Deputy Prime Minister and the the woman who successfully spearheaded a pounds 3.2m appeal for the Ashmolean in the early Nineties, said it was terrific that the museum had recruited someone "who has get-up-and-go".

"He won't be the man with the money in Oxford. We will help him to find it, but our main concern is conserving the collection we have got," she said.