The J Paul Getty Museum, one of the world's largest and best endowed art collections, faces a fresh blow to its reputation following the publication of internal documents suggesting it ignored warnings that up to half of its highest profile antiquities acquisitions were looted from ruins in Italy.
The Getty is already under a dark cloud, with the Italian government demanding the return of 42 pieces in its collection and its curator of antiquities, Marion True, on trial in Italy on criminal conspiracy charges.
But the new documents, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, add considerable detail to previous allegations and depict an organisation both tortured by the question of the provenance of its treasures and, at the very least, unwilling to delve too deeply into its acquisition practices.
As long ago as 1987, around the time the Getty was issuing its first formal policy on acquisitions in an ostensible effort to keep its hands clean, the chief executive of the Getty Trust was quoted describing one of the museum's main dealers as a "fence" and asking: "Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?"
These words were recorded by John Walsh, the museum director, in his handwritten notes of a meeting. They were discussing the possible acquisition of a statue of Aphrodite, later bought for $18m. According to those notes, the Getty Trust chief executive, Harold Williams said bluntly: "We know it's stolen ... We are saying we won't look into the provenance."
Confronted by the Los Angeles Times ahead of the documents' publication, Mr Williams and Mr Walsh said that they were speaking hypothetically.
However, the documents make clear that in the estimation of the Getty's own lawyers, the museum knew as early as 1985 that three of its principal dealers were selling objects that had probably been looted. The lawyers estimated that 82 artworks were liable to investigation, including 54 of the 104 in the Getty antiquities collection described as masterpieces.
In numerous instances cited by the Times, the museum was warned about the provenance of a specific piece - an urn, a golden funerary wreath, a ceremonial marble basin, and various sculptures - but went ahead with the purchase anyway. The Getty says that it had "never knowingly acquired an object that had been illegally excavated or exported."
The Getty has been investigated for years by the Italian government. That investigation was ramped up this year when Ms True was indicted, the third person to face criminal charges following the indictments of two of the Getty's dealers, Robert E Hecht Jr and Giacomo Medici. Medici was convicted last year and is currently free pending appeal against his 10-year prison sentence. The trial of Mr Hecht and Ms True began in July and resumes in November.
Of the defendants, Ms True is by far the most eye-catching because she has impeccable credentials and a long history of public statements on the need for strict ethics in the acquisition of artefacts. The Getty insists she did nothing wrong.
She is accused of conspiring not only to receive stolen goods but to participate in laundering the proceeds of the sale through false documentation. Ms True directs the Getty Villa, the original museum building in Los Angeles which takes the form of a Greek villa on the Malibu bluffs. The villa has been closed for years for renovation, its much-delayed reopening almost certainly not being hastened by the growing scandal.Reuse content