Tainted treasures in Malibu: The glory of Rome (and the smell of scandal)

The Getty Villa, home to thousands of antiquities, reopens to the public in California this weekend after a $275m renovation. But the unveiling has been overshadowed by a series of allegations involving art theft and corruption. Andrew Gumbel reports from Los Angeles
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The Independent US

Under other circumstances, the reopening of the original J Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles - a painstakingly reproduced ancient Roman villa on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean - might have been cause for universal celebration. The villa, known as an intriguing mix of high art, patrician folly and sword-and-sandals Hollywood cheese, has been closed for renovation since 1997. Back then, the worst it had to worry about were the never-ending complaints of its litigious neighbours who didn't like the cars, or the noise, or the very prospect of vulgar museum-goers infesting their high-toned chunk of prize southern California real estate.

The Getty collections themselves - or rather, the tiny fraction of them that could reasonably be stuffed into any exhibition space - moved to a spanking new building in the hills a few miles inland, where architectural critics swooned over Richard Maier's deceptively simple white marble creation and visitors thrilled to the electric train ride sweeping them up the hill from a vast subterranean car park. The one thing any art lover or tourist has really missed for the past eight and half years has been the opportunity to languish in the beauties and eccentric ambition of the villa itself, a reconstructed and - naturally, this being Hollywood - reworked version of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, which is believed to have been occupied by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, among others, before the fateful eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.

And yet tomorrow's grand public reopening of the Getty Villa is anything but a happy occasion. The collection of Greek and Roman antiquities it will showcase has become the object of a major international art theft scandal. The woman who did more than anyone to build up the Getty's extraordinary trove of antiquities, the longtime curator Marion True, is currently on trial in Rome on charges of criminal conspiracy. She resigned from the Getty in October.

The Italian and Greek governments are demanding the return of 46 pieces they believe they can prove to have been stolen, including some of the most prized antiquities now going on display at the villa. While the Getty is doing everything it can to play down the controversy in its public statements - it has repeatedly insisted that it has never knowingly acquired stolen artefacts - the organisation is clearly in a state of turmoil.

California's attorney general has opened an investigation into Barry Munitz, the chief executive of the $9bn (£5bn) Getty Trust, over allegations that he has abused the trust's charitable status to live high on the hog at the Getty's expense.

Over the years, Mr Munitz has charged the trust for luxury hotel rooms, a Tuscan villa rental, a yachting cruise along the Dalmatian coast and a new Porsche - all on top of his $1.2m annual salary. One US senator, who is also investigating, has alleged Mr Munitz and his friends have spent more time watching old episodes of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous than they have looking after the trust's interests.

The investigations have, in turn, precipitated a steady stream of departures and resignations. Deborah Gribbon, the museum director, quit in October 2004 over unspecified differences with Mr Munitz, and her interim replacement quickly made it clear he did not want the job either. Following them out the door have been Mr Munitz's chief of staff, the head of publications and the public relations manager. For the past year, the trust has outsourced the tricky job of defending its public reputation to a prominent firm of Hollywood spin-doctors.

Just this week, when the whole organisation should have been focused on the thrill of unveiling its $275m makeover of the Getty Villa, the bad karma continued with the resignation of Getty Trust board member Barbara Fleischman. Mrs Fleischman and her late husband sold part of their extensive antiquities collection to the Getty for $20m in 1996, and donated another $40m worth. To express their gratitude for the deal, they granted Marion True, the now disgraced antiquities curator, a loan of $400,000 so she could buy a holiday home in Greece from an art dealer with whom she was also conducting museum business. After years of secrecy, the whole clamorous conflict of interest has tumbled out over the past couple of months, not least thanks to some consistently aggressive reporting by the Los Angeles Times.

None of this, it must be said, has done anything to diminish the appeal of the new villa. Just 1,200 visitors will be allowed in each day - for reasons of space as well as the legal settlement reached with those litigious neighbours - and already all available reservations, running to the end of July, have been exhausted. The appeal, though, is no longer strictly one of artistic curiosity. To many Angelenos, the villa has taken on something of the fascination of a palace built for a Mafia don or a dictator. In the course of a preview visit at the villa last weekend, more than one person could be overheard joking that we had all better see the place quick before its treasures were shipped back to Europe.

The villa is certainly a marvel, with its marbled open-air peristyles, its lush Mediterranean vegetation and its views across a long open-air pool towards the cerulean Pacific. The drive is paved with imitation ancient-Roman cobblestones and the car park, once nestled underground, is now carved into the hillside. The architects who undertook the remodelling job, Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, have constructed a scenic walkway that brings visitors up over one side of the villa and down to a central staging area, with the atrium straight ahead, an outdoor amphitheatre to one side and study areas, an auditorium and café stretching away toward the back of the property.

It is hard, though, not to take in the sights as a sort of guided tour to the scandals, corruption and legal battles of the past few years. The amphitheatre, for starters, has the names Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman etched into its marble side. On the ground floor of the villa itself, it is almost impossible to miss the monumental limestone statue of Aphrodite (or possibly some other goddess) dating from the 5th century BC - a statue the Italian government says comes from the Greek archaeological site at Morgantina in Sicily whence it was spirited away by thieves.

The Getty bought the Aphrodite statue from the London antiquities dealer Robin Symes in 1986 for $18m. It has since been described as the greatest Greek sculpture in the United States. Some doubts have been expressed - especially by supporters of Dr True - that it can in fact be traced back to Morgantina. But internal notes and memos from the Getty leaked to the LA Times last year suggest the museum knew as far back as 1987 that it was possibly treading on shaky ground. "We know it's stolen," the then chief executive of the Getty Trust, Harold Williams, is quoted as saying in the museum director's notes. "Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?"

The Getty has suggested these sentiments were merely hypothetical, and has condemned the LA Times for what it says is the publication of stolen internal documents. The LA Times, in turn, says it breached no journalistic ethics and noted in one of its responses that the Getty did not challenge the authenticity of the documents themselves.

Those well versed in the Getty catalogue - and the trial unfolding in Rome - can spot many more examples of prized exhibits that may at some point elude the Getty's grasp. In the documents leaked to the LA Times, the Getty's own lawyers estimate that 82 of its artworks risked having their provenance investigated, including 54 items classified as masterpieces.

In some ways, there is nothing new about any of these controversies. J Paul Getty's very first antiquities acquisition, a terracotta sculpture of a reclining female that he bought from Sotheby's in 1939, turned out to be a fake, a 19th-century imitation. Even after the Getty Villa opened in 1974, much anxiety focused on the authenticity of one of the prize exhibits: a kouros, or statue of a naked young man. After many years of argument back and forth, the Getty has chosen to label the piece "Greek, circa 530 BC or modern forgery".

Debate rages as to whether things have got worse in the past few years - the Munitz allegations have not helped in this regard - or whether, despite all appearances, they have in fact got better. Italy now has a law safeguarding against at least some art thefts, which it did not have when the late Mr Getty first started throwing around his oil millions and acquiring whatever he could. The Getty itself, meanwhile, has established a policy to try to avoid the embarrassment of ending up with stolen goods - a policy written, intriguingly, by Marion True.

There is certainly nothing new about the stench of impropriety that hangs about the collection. "Something about the place embarrasses people," Joan Didion wrote a long time ago. She, and others, have argued that this is not entirely inappropriate, given the decadence and corruption of the ancient Roman villa culture it seeks to imitate, not to mention the broader context of America as the sole global superpower, the new Rome.

As the LA Times critic Christopher Knight observed this week: "The disinterred Getty Villa is gorgeous, vulgar, filled with astounding treasure, tainted by corruption, often brilliant, more than a little decadent - not unlike the vivid twilight of the [Roman] Empire itself."