Great art museums are in part about the beautiful display of money: dearly acquired works shown in costly surroundings. By that standard, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is among the greatest. It occupies a Richard Meier-designed campus of Italian travertine high in the Santa Monica Mountains. It husbands a $5 billion-plus endowment. With that war chest--the legacy of oil mogul J. Paul Getty, who died in 1976--it built in a few decades a collection that would have taken another museum generations.
Now the Getty is getting attention for the kinds of spending that museums don't brag about. Next month, the trial of former antiquities curator, Marion True, resumes in Italy on charges that she helped the museum buy 42 illegally looted Roman and Etruscan artifacts. True has denied the allegations, but last week she resigned after the revelation that a dealer involved in some of the purchases helped her get a loan for a vacation home in Greece. Critics of the museum say her case is a symptom of a culture of mismanagement and excess, in which the head of the museum's trust allegedly used the institution as a piggy bank to, among other things, buy himself a $72,000 car. The Getty, it seems, may be melting down faster than it was built up.
The tainted-goods charges are not unique to the Getty. For decades, ancient artifacts have been illicitly dug up and sold to see-no-evil museums. But the Getty was a notoriously aggressive collector, and some in the art world believe that its hunger and spending habits encouraged looting and theft. Ironically, True was responsible in 1995 for the Getty's adopting a strict policy of buying only well-documented pieces. "She extricated the museum from an ethical morass," says University of Virginia professor of art history Malcolm Bell. "It's extremely sad that the one person who understood that the intellectual integrity of her institution depended on respecting knowledge is now going on trial."
But the Getty's problems extend well beyond True. Earlier this year, a Los Angeles Times investigation, based on hundreds of leaked documents, charged that museum officials had known for years that its suppliers may have been selling looted works. A former museum official says the museum did not buy anything it "knew or strongly suspected came from an illicit source." The Times also reported that the trust's president, Barry Munitz, has had the Getty spring for such perks as first-class plane tickets, yacht rentals and a Porsche SUV (which he reportedly directed should have "the biggest possible sunroof"). Because the Getty is a nonprofit institution, taxpayers would be underwriting his airline legroom, and the California attorney general is investigating the spending.