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CultureGrrl Q&A with Incoming Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts—Part II (Collecting Antiquities)

Sunset at the Getty Center
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

[Part I is here.]

During our conversation last Thursday, I had a detailed discussion with incoming Getty Museum director Timothy Potts regarding international cultural property issues—a thorny subject in which he has taken a deep interest, as an archaeologist, a former acquirer of antiquities for the Kimbell Art Museum (which he previously directed) and a likely future acquirer for the Getty.

What most startled me was his lack of thorough knowledge about the Getty’s written antiquities-collecting policy, which is more stringent than the UNESCO Convention‘s guidelines regarding cultural property. (UNESCO’s rules, ratified by the U.S., restrict museums from acquiring objects lacking a well documented, clean provenance that goes back at least to November 1970.)

In light of the Getty’s history of past antiquities-related mishaps and scandals (which led to its adoption of its unusually strict policy), the failure of Getty officials to fully brief its prospective museum director (and to seek his concurrence) regarding these acquisition rules seems a significant omission, calling into question the current administration’s wholehearted commitment to the policy put into place by the previous administration.

Indeed, the Getty’s new president, James Cuno, said during our recent radio gig on KCRW that “The Getty Museum is absolutely clear, probably more than any museum in the country, that 1970 is the bright-line date.” He ignored the fact that the written policy actually goes far beyond that.

I began the part of my conversation with Potts that concerned antquities-acquisition policies by asking if his thinking had changed since the time when he played a leading role in drafting the Association of Art Museum Directors’ 2004 guidelines. Those allowed museums to acquire an ancient piece with incomplete provenance if that object could be proven to have been out of the source country for a mere 10 years before the proposed acquisition. AAMD’s policy was tightened in 2008 to conform to the November 1970 standard promulgated by UNESCO.

ROSENBAUM: Do you still think the “rolling 10-year rule,” which you supported, was a good idea or have you revised your thinking on that?

POTTS: Has my thinking evolved? No. I think the same issues are still there. The difference between the policies is the extent to which they prioritize the question of what happens to the material that, through no fault of its own, is discovered through development, through road-building, through accidental discoveries of all different kinds. And that is the majority of the category we’re talking about.

The 10-year rule was an attempt to find a way of putting enough distance between the excavation of the object—by someone who shouldn’t have been doing it, in some cases—and the acquisition, but to still provide a mechanism where it could be properly documented, recorded, published and therefore could make its contribution to the understanding of the culture.

The later policy clearly took the view that this was less of a priority than the clarity of a single line and date of 1970. There’s no inconsistency between those policies. They’re just weighing those two different considerations slightly differently.

ROSENBAUM: I think the first policy was seen as essentially giving an opportunity for object-laundering: You hold it for long enough time, and then it becomes clean. That’s what the critique of that policy was.

: Both policies say that if they’ve been held long enough, it is okay to buy them. They’re just drawing that line at different points: One’s a fixed line and one’s a moving line.

ROSENBAUM: The Getty’s policy is different and more strict. It goes beyond UNESCO. Are you aware of that? Are you comfortable with that?

POTTS: I haven’t seen a document on the details of the policy. My understanding is that the Getty does abide by the 1970 rule and I certainly would abide by the 1970 rule and have absolutely no problem with that. I do think that rule raises some very interesting and important questions about what happens to that material [objects with murky post-1970 provenance] and what role museums can play, if any, in its being preserved and published, even though we’re not going to own it. What is to happen to it, so that it’s not just lost and completely abandoned to the private markets and forgotten about?

Works are still being looted. The context is still being lost at an increasing rate. So the problem hasn’t gone away. I think sometimes people use 1970 as a bit of a fig leaf to disguise the real problem, which is there is still a huge amount of ongoing looting and this issue is not being addressed.

: I’m surprised to hear that you haven’t seen the Getty’s document on its policy regarding antiquities. It’s online and was adopted in October 2006. It goes way beyond UNESCO. It says:

No object will be acquired that, to the knowledge of the museum, has been stolen, removed in contravention of
treaties and international conventions of which the United States is a signatory, illegally exported from its country of origin or the country where it was last legally owned, or illegally imported into the United States.

That applies even if the object does have a clean provenance going back to November 1970. How do you feel about this?

POTTS: It’s unlikely that they will ever be in conflict, because if it [an illegal export or import] was before 1970, it’s unlikely that there would be the information that would determine that it was legally exported or not. But if there is, that’s always been the case: If there’s information that something’s been illegally exported, that’s a big problem.

ROSENBAUM: I don’t think anybody denies that the “Getty Bronze” left Italy under circumstances that were illegal in Italy. And it left before 1970. It’s one of those instances, and I’m sure there are others, where it’s pretty clear that it didn’t get an export license. [In fact, the museum’s founder, J. Paul Getty, is said to have passed on the opportunity (scroll down) to acquire that same Greek male nude, Victorious Youth, because of his own concerns about illicit export.]

“Victorious Youth,” Greek, 300-100 B.C., J. Paul Getty Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

POTTS: Today I’m not going to get into what happened with the “Getty Bronze” or the antiquities policy of the Getty. Whatever policy we’ve got, there are going to be further issues that need to be addressed in terms of maximizing what museums and all the art community can do to preserve the cultural heritage that survives, in whatever way it’s been excavated.

Museums were criticized for owning these things. Well they’re not owning these things. They’re not buying these things. But that doesn’t absolve them from the responsibility of trying to preserve it and study it and have it published, so that you can contribute something to the world of understanding.

The only way to address it is on the ground in the source countries. We have to support better policing of the sites, better understanding by the local communities of the importance of the archaeological heritage, particularly to them. And it’s only through these programs that we’re really going to tackle the core problem, which is the illicit excavation that’s still going on and the huge urban projects, dam building, and so on. The educational process has to happen not only with the local community but also with the government and ministers.

Looking into one of Potts’ pots, Jason Felch‘s and Ralph Frammolino‘s Chasing Aphrodite blog on Friday examined the murky history of a Greek Douris cup, ca. 480 B.C., that the Kimbell Art Museum acquired in 2000, under Timothy’s directorship. (Looting Matters blogger David Gill had raised questions about that cup’s provenance in 2009, here.)

I asked Potts about the cup during our conversation. His reply: “I’d have to check.”

Douris (painter), “Red-Figure Cup Showing the Death of Pentheus (exterior) and a Maenad (interior),” c. 480 B.C.
Photo: Kimbell Art Museum

He was more expansive, though, with Chasing Aphrodite: “We did due diligence on the object and were confident that it fell within the AAMD and other U.S. guidelines then in force.”

Felcholino pressed the Kimbell, which promised to post the vase on the Association of Art Museum Director’s registry for objects with murky post-1970 histories. At this writing, it’s not yet on that registry. But its appearance there, if it happens, would be an anomaly: The registry was intended only for acquisitions made after the June 2008 date when that list of possible loot was established.

Given the doubts raised by their recent statements (and in light of their announced intention to consider broadening the scope of the Getty’s antiquities collection), the Getty’s new president and incoming museum director would do well to affirm an explicit, unequivocal commitment to complying with all of the principles embodied in the Getty’s groundbreaking written policy for antiquities acquisitions. If they intend to fudge those rules, they should say so, say why, and say it now, before any non-conforming acquisitions are made.

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