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Jewish Journal

Finders Keepers?

by Tom L. Freudenheim

February 2, 2006 | 7:00 pm

The Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.

The Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.

It's definitely tsuris time at the pristine white acropolis complex of the Getty, which overlooks the San Diego Freeway, and at its wonderful, freshly renovated, fake Pompeian villa up the Pacific Coast Highway. Barry Munitz, the Getty Trust's president and CEO since 1998, has been battered with press reports about apparently uncontrolled and self-indulgent personal expense-account spending of the kind that we have learned to associate with corporate malfeasance. The Getty's vast assets may result from spectacular corporate earnings, but a trust is responsible to the public -- to us! -- not to stockholders. Insider staff dissatisfaction became most evident last fall, with the sudden resignation of Getty Museum Director Deborah Gribben.

Last week's overdue resignation of Getty trustee and major antiquities donor Barbara Fleischman appears to be an attempt to resolve conflict-of-interest charges, which earlier forced the resignation of Marion True, the Getty's prominent curator for antiquities. True is currently being tried by Italian authorities, who claim that she was involved in the Getty's acquisition of allegedly stolen archaeological material. (Her defenders argue that True was actually responsible for the museum's adopting stricter policies to determine the legality of its acquisition of ancient art.) Meanwhile, the Getty trustees have been attacked for inadequate fiduciary oversight, while simultaneously creating an investigative committee to see whether anything wrong has happened in either the Trust's or the museum's actions.

Problems like the Getty's grab headlines because the countries from which the antiquities came -- Italy, Greece, Turkey and Mexico among them -- are no longer shy in their very public demands for restitution. In response, our own sense of righteous indignation moves in one of two directions: outrage that a museum is holding objects that are alleged to have been stolen and/or outrage that a museum -- society's safe-haven for precious things -- is being asked to return objects to people who didn't know how to take care of them properly. (Hey, otherwise how would they have gotten out in the first place?) This problem of objects claimed by previous owners or countries of origin faces all museums with historical holdings like a looming epidemic, a sort of Asian bird flu of the arts: There are a few isolated cases so far, but the fear of contagion could spread panic.

The Getty's initial opaque response to such external pressures seems to be typical of many of our most valued public institutions, although it's just possible that the Getty's stunning arrogance is exceptional, even in the uppity world of museums. The Getty's very spot, at the top of mountains in Pacific Palisades and in Brentwood, is symbolic of the institution. Is there, in these locations, an innate sense of not belonging to all those freeway backups down below that is emblematic of the distance between the Getty and the necessary demands of the real world? And is this what we see in many of our museums -- that is, while providing one kind of access (educational programs, audio guides, etc.), they are nevertheless making sure that there is a wall keeping the public from knowing anything about how the place is run, the role of the trustees, and whether there are questions surrounding how the collections got there?

In light of this, I've been remembering my own professional museum experiences, and how I functioned in my role as a public servant -- for that's what museum workers are. On an organization chart, I reported directly to the trustees, but I always knew that my real bosses were the museum visitors, or even the potential visitors I had yet to lure in. Guiding midsized museums, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art and later the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, placed me in highly visible positions, but it never occurred to me that I needed an unlisted telephone number or other means to keep the public from my door. Even while working at the Smithsonian as assistant secretary for museums, with oversight responsibility for 15 of our national museums, I felt that anyone ought to have access to me, whether in my office or at home and, frankly, it never was a problem. Despite its size and wealth, the Getty management's secrecy and absence of candor is not acceptable for an institution that is meant to serve as a public trust.

The criticism, nevertheless, is worth reviewing as well. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was quoted expressing his concern "that the Getty board has been spending more time watching old episodes of 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' than doing its job of protecting Getty's assets for charitable purposes." But then, the Senate is not exactly our first stop when seeking probity these days. And even though the Council on Foundations recently placed the Getty Trust on probation, that doesn't give us license to rush to judgment.

Here are some Jewish ethical questions we might ask prior to a Getty visit:

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• Am I personally implicated in any visiting relationship I might have with an organization about which I've been reading such schmutz?

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• Is it a sin to enjoy looking at antiquities that might have been stolen or illicitly acquired?

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• Do I have a responsibility to make ethical judgments on these matters, or is it enough to leave such matters to higher authorities?

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• Is there anything different about such ethics at the Getty compared to all sorts of other arts institutions in Los Angeles?

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• Is my cultural life going to be seriously circumscribed if Jewish ethical answers tell me what to do?

In Tractate Bava Metzia, the Talmud deals extensively with claimants to stolen goods -- a matter of some interest in regard to many museums, but especially newsworthy these days, with ex-curator True on trial in an Italian courtroom. Yet most of us aren't living via Talmudic references. Instead, some inner sense of what we feel is "right" guides us in our opinions on all sorts of matters -- from the O.J. Simpson verdict to revelations about U.S. "torture" prisons abroad -- even if our views may conflict with ongoing policies or laws. This seems to accord with Martin Buber's view that we can "aim" at the truth, even when there isn't a single reliable yardstick for ethical decisions.

Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, one of the intellectual deities of American Reform Judaism argued that "the Mishnah and the Talmud fail to give ethics the prominent place it occupies in the prophetic and wisdom literature of the Bible and did not even make an attempt to formulate a system of ethics." Kohler and early American Reform Judaism understood that for some of the grand issues in life, traditional Jewish law might not always be the most useful guide. So they appealed to concepts found in the Prophets, as well as interpretations by Jewish thinkers under their influence:

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• "Do justice, love mercy" (Micah)

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• "Seek justice. Relieve the oppressed" (Isaiah)

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• Protest against social injustice (Amos)

We don't generally expect museums to be homes for political activism. They are about the exceptional. Their proper interest is with out-of-the-ordinary "things" -- items that are rare and expensive and difficult to secure -- and museums go to great lengths to amass these much-coveted works. But coveting can lead to questionable actions, and that why it's mentioned in the Ten Commandments. Was that, for example, the motive leading the Getty to pay $18 million for an Aphrodite statue that appears to have been looted from Sicily? These issues have been openly discussed in the museum field for over 30 years. So why does this appear to be new news?

It's not unlike today's discussion about fuel-efficient cars, which takes no account of the public discourse on this issue in the 1970s. Knowing that ethical issues might surround the acquisition of the Fleischman antiquities collection, donated and sold to the Getty in 1996 (from which the Italian authorities are demanding the return of a number of objects) didn't keep the Getty from bringing Fleischman onto the Getty board. Given the very public history of these ethical issues, how did Fleischman keep a straight face when she told the press: "We were absolute innocents. We thought we were buying ... from legitimate dealers...[it] was not an issue at the time"?

Similar questions are now being asked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in connection with the major antiquities collection of Leon Levy and Shelby White currently on long-term loan to the Met. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (sort of a Cliffs Notes code of Jewish law) tells us that "it is forbidden to rob or steal an article even of trivial value from a Jew or non-Jew."

But museum objects often fall more readily into the lost-and-found category, in which one doesn't know (or doesn't want to know) whether an item has been stolen.

It's quite clear, however, that "finders keepers" doesn't quite cut it Jewishly, as the Kitzur tells us at least twice:

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• "If one sees an article that has been lost by a Jew, he must take care of it and restore it to its owner...."

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• ".... It is good and right ... to do more than the law requires and to restore [the found article] to the rightful owner, provided the latter can identify it. Moreover [one] can be forced to restore it."

That is in marked contrast with what has tended to be a prevailing museum ethic, ever since museums came into being -- even in their earlier manifestations as the wunderkammer (chamber of wonders) of the rich and noble. The museum-as-treasure-house concept is part of the museum mystique. (King Tut exhibitions are only an extreme manifestation of that. Booty, such as the so-called "Elgin Marbles" from the Parthenon, a centerpiece of the British Museum's collection in London, are another.)

Do we really want to know the precise history of every object we admire in a museum? Until relatively recently there was little concern about the questionable ethics behind some of a museum's holdings. Spoils of war, and otherwise purloined goods were not viewed as ethically questionable, because we are taught to believe in the museum's role as society's archive/warehouse for important and/or valuable material held on our behalf. This archival function somehow kashers the whole operation.

But if museums regularly dispose of warehoused materials -- the verb in the trade is deaccession -- and LACMA's recent housecleaning exercise is a case in point -- doesn't that counter our idea of a museum's role? First we are taught to cherish the stuff, and then it gets sent to the auction house. (It's kind of like the innocent farm boy seeing his pet pig sent off to the abattoir.) If we see museums buying and selling, acquiring and disposing, does that change our view of their legitimate warehouse claim on materials with questionable provenance and unclear title? Like the items the Italians are trying to recover from the Getty. One museum argument is that those returned things might later turn up on the marketplace. But aren't museums themselves already making that happen?

In our eagerness to point fingers, let's not simply demonize the Getty on the occasion of the reopening of their magnificent ersatz Pompeian villa. "Our" Jewish museums have undiscussed problems of their own. Los Angeles' extraordinary Skirball Cultural Center's collections include several objects of Judaica that once belonged to museums and private collections in pre-World War II Europe. The Skirball's splendid silver so-called "Rothschild" Chanukah lamp, with well-documented provenance, once belonged to the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt-am-Main. The lamp was included in a large hoard of Nazi-stolen material that was redistributed by the Allied Powers following World War II (to Jewish institutions in the U.S.A., Israel and elsewhere) There was an assumption at the time that Jewish life in Germany would never be reestablished; no one could have predicted the revival of Jewish life in Europe. Yet, today, there is a Jewish Museum in Frankfurt -- arguably, if not technically, the successor institution of the pre-war one. It is therefore reasonable to ponder whether it's time for new discussions regarding artifacts whose provenance can clearly be traced to institutions that once again are in business.

Much as with the rest of the museum and collecting world, anything goes and possession is at least 9/10s of the law. However, while these newly established Jewish museums in Germany may be timid about demands for restitution of Jewish materials, other countries are not shy in their very public campaigns to embarrass museums into returning material with questionable histories. But it works both ways as well.

Maria Altmann of Los Angeles sued the Austrian Gallery (Vienna) for the return of several Gustav Klimt paintings which had belonged to her late uncle, but were long claimed as state property. The recent resolution of this by an Austrian arbitration court granted her the right to reclaim these paintings.

The case of the Getty and the re-emergence of its villa in Pacific Palisades arrive at a time of evolving presumptions. In the past, Americans trusted the integrity of their public institutions, including museums, more than they do today. Even the cynical wisdom of Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken or Will Rogers probably did little to undermine that trust. Going to a museum, therefore, could always endure as a journey of wonder and learning.

But is that still true? As we groove on the Getty Villa's treasures, should we worry that our participation makes us tacit accomplices in a world of underhanded acquisition, tomb robbers and sleazy dealers who operate money and art laundering operations? Possibly. Yet no more so than when we enjoy the wonders on display at most museums the world over. The viewer isn't especially well-positioned to know the sources of art on view, and given our continued acceptance of the lack of candor in so many public institutions, we're not likely to find out.

A biblical concept such as "the beauty of holiness" (Psalms 29:2) isn't really about enjoying museums, unless you buy into the oft-discussed view that in our society the museum functions as a new place of worship. And if you accept the notion of a museum as a venue that embodies some of the best ideals and tangible results of human activity, then you're going to be in trouble if you ask too many questions about where this stuff came from. I believe these inquiries must continue, whatever their ultimate resolution. But here's my advice for your Getty visit: Enjoy!

Tom L. Freudenheim, an art historian and writer, served as assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.), and has been in charge of museums in Baltimore, Worcester, Berlin and London.

 

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