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“Baseless Claims”: Getty Blasts Phoenix Ancient Art for Megamillion Lawsuit Over Torlonia Collection

UPDATE, 7/18: Phoenix is back in the news with a libel suit against Dow Jones over this Wall Street Journal article. Regarding the gallery’s January suit, described below, Ron Hartwig, the Getty Trust’s vice president for communications, today informed me: “We have moved to dismiss all of the tort claims and we are prepared to litigate any remaining issues should that be necessary. The fundamental premise remains the same: There was never a deal. We are waiting for the court’s decision.”

When I wrote approvingly last Friday about the Getty Museum’s reinstallation plans for the antiquities collection housed in its Villa, little did I know that the museum was being sued that same day in an antiquities-related case to the tune of $77 million (plus damages, lawyers’ fees and expenses).

The full 38-page complaint is here.

The lead plaintiff in this U.S. District Court civil case is Phoenix Ancient Art, a gallery in Geneva and New York, which accuses the Getty of breach of contract, fraud, unfair competition and various other sins, in connection with the museum’s alleged interest in “acquiring or controlling” works from the Torlonia Collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.

Here’s one of that collection’s highlights:

Odysseus hiding under a ram to escape from the cave of Polyphemus
Fondazione Torlonia Onlus

The Getty already owns a sculpture of a similar subject, but you can easily see the difference in quality:

Statuette of Odysseus under a Ram, Greek (created in Sicily), 525 – 500 B.C., Getty Museum

In their complaint against the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Getty Museum and its director, Timothy Potts (among others), the plaintiffs claim to have “created exclusive relationships with the Torlonia family and Italian officials designed to create a plan to transfer, sell, display and commercialize a Torlonia family extensive art collection…valued in the billions of dollars.” They allege that the Getty, in violation of its agreements with the plaintiffs, “stole the value of years of work and relationships” with the Torlonia family and Italian authorities by attempting to “cut [the] plaintiffs out of the deal” to transfer of sculptures from the family to the museum.

At this writing, no reply brief has been filed by the Getty. But here’s what Ron Hartwig, the Getty Trust’s vice president for communications, had to say in response to my queries:

The claims set forth in the lawsuit are baseless.  The Getty was offered an opportunity to discuss a possible transfer of ownership of ancient sculptures in a private collection.  The Getty declined the acquisition and the objects were later transferred to the Italian government.  We do not understand how the transfer of ownership from an Italian family to the Italian government, which will display the collection in its many wonderful museums, is cause for a lawsuit against the Getty. Plaintiffs cannot plausibly demand payment for a deal that never occurred [emphasis added]. While we believe that the complaint should be dismissed, if necessary we will vigorously defend our position….

The Getty did not purchase the sculptures and they are not on loan to the Getty.

Managed by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam, Phoenix has been embroiled in various antiquities-related controversies over the years. It was called out five years ago in a fact sheet by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) (scroll to last item) for “allegedly trafficking in illegally obtained art and antiquities, both violations of the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property and the Cultural Property Implementation Act [CPIA].” The same fact sheet also made note of one of the Getty’s many antiquities-related controversies—the seizure from the Getty and return to Rome in 2005 of a 2,300-year-old vase “that was allegedly smuggled out of Italy.”

What struck me as surprising about the Phoenix filing, as published on the website of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, is that the plaintiffs’ much-cited “Non-Circumvention Agreement” with the Getty is not attached to the brief as an exhibit. It’s hard to judge whether the Getty may have violated a binding written agreement without being able to see it. What we also don’t know is whether “the deal never occurred” (in the Getty’s words) because Phoenix insisted on its rights under a written agreement. If and when the case proceeds, we’ll likely know more.

Last March, Elisabetta Povoledo of the NY Times reported that “representatives of the [Italian] Culture Ministry signed an accord here with the Torlonia Foundation…to display the works in public, starting with a show of at least 60 Greek and Roman statues in Rome….It will then travel elsewhere in Europe and to the United States. Eventually, a permanent home will be found for the collection.”

Might the soon-to-be expanded and reinstalled galleries in the Getty Villa figure prominently in those plans? Here’s all Hartwig would say:

We would love to mount an exhibition of these important and largely unseen works, but there are no plans at this time.

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