ElAnt v2n1 - MUSEUMS AND ETHICS - Response to McClellan

Volume 2, Number 1
June 1994


Murray C McClellan ( EA 2,1 - June 1994 )

Kenneth Hamma,
Associate Curator, Antiquities,
J. Paul Getty Museum,
Malibu, CA, USA.

Dr. McClellan raises issues that have preoccupied this museum for a very long time. In responding as an individual, I would also like to add some information that might help this dialogue move beyond the merely provocative.


The Getty Museum does not flagrantly disregard the American Association of Museums' stipulation that acquisition, disposal and loan activities be conducted in a manner that respects the protection of natural and cultural resources and discourages illicit trade in such materials. Dr. McClellan would do well to believe what he states at the opening of his second paragraph, "it is my no means clear ...," before entering on such a reckless accusation that borders on libel in suggesting that the Director of this museum ignores the terms of the Code of Ethics for Museum Directors. And in admitting that "it is by no means clear," he would do well, lacking the substance, not to assume a posture of informed commentator on the Getty's "record of acquisition" and acquisition policy generally.

Because there is great educational value in public collections this museum is interested in collecting. The market - including dealers, individual collectors and auctions - through which that is done offers a tremendous amount of material, much of it unprovenanced for a variety of reasons. In attempting to work with that market and exercise due diligence regarding title and international conventions and agreements, the museum adopted in 1987 an acquisition policy that addresses a number of issues. I feel I should recite that policy here; it can be found published with commentary in an article by Linda F. Pinkerton, "Due Diligence in Fine Art Transactions", in Volume 22 (1990) of the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law . This policy governs all acquisitions by the Antiquities Department of this museum.

"It is the policy of the J. Paul Getty Museum to acquire Classical antiquities of great artistic merit that become available in the United States and abroad, provided that these acquisitions are made in accordance with the 1970 UNESCO Convention and with certain procedures enumerated here.

1 Vendors of substance. All transactions shall be conducted only with vendors of substance and established reputation in order that such transactions shall be covered by enforceable warranties.

2 Notification of foreign governments. Before acquiring an important object, the Museum will send photographs of it to the appropriate government agency of the possible countries of origin in order to determine if there are any specific objections or possible claims that may be made concerning the object. In addition, photographs will be sent to the International Foundation for Art Research in New York to be checked against its current list of objects reported stolen or missing.

3 Warranties. Upon the approval of an object for purchase, the vendor will be required to warrant for a period of 48 months following delivery of the object:

a) that the object offered is authentic;

b) that the vendor has good title to the object;

c) that the object had been legally exported from its country of origin and has been or will be legally exported from the country in which it was found and has been or will be legally exported from and into all other relevant countries, including the United States; and

d) that all other customs and patrimony laws, regulations and requirements of all other relevant countries have been met.

4 Announcement, exhibition, and publication. The acquisition of an important object will be announced promptly to the press, and the appropriate government agencies of the possible countries of origin will be notified. The object will be placed on exhibition as soon as it can be safely installed; an illustrated entry for the object will be included in the next Acquisitions Supplement to The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal; and the curator of Antiquities or a specialist in the field will prepare a scholarly publication of the object to appear within a year of acquisition or as soon thereafter as possible.

5 Claims. In the case of acquisitions made after adoption of this Policy:

a) If the Museum becomes aware, more than 48 months after acquisition and delivery of an object, of a patrimony claim by a foreign government which claim would be valid but for the bar of the statute of limitations or the three year exemption period in Section 312 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the Museum normally will offer to return the object to the aggrieved country upon payment of just compensation.

b) If the Museum becomes aware of a patrimony claim by a foreign government before the expiration of the 48 month period, at the Museum's option, the vendor will be required by warranty to defend the claim at the vendor's expense. Should the vendor be unable or unwilling to do so, the Museum will consider the validity of the claim and will determine accordingly whether to contest the claim or surrender the object.

c) If the vendor defends such a claim which ultimately is adjudged valid, the vendor will be required by the sales agreement to be responsible for all damages, costs and expenses imposed by judgement upon the Museum; if the object is ordered to be returned to the aggrieved country by judgement, the vendor in addition shall refund to the Museum the purchase price thereof, interest thereon and all expenses borne by the Museum in connection with the transaction."


Citing Prof. Elias' recent article on the 'issues' related to the kouros in the Getty collection adds confusion to a point where confusion has helped in many ways to obscure some basic difficulties and continuing misapprehensions. The basis of Elias' article seemed to be an assumption that the Getty Museum is concealing information that might lead to the quick resolution of the question of authenticity. This is simply not true. The only two items held as confidential here are the price paid and the name of the person to whom it was paid. Neither would serve to further discussions in any way. Anyone who thinks he or she would be able to force some truth from a person unwilling to divulge it, and who has, we readily admit, lied about the provenance of this statue, had better reevaluate their powers of persuasion and divination.


In his main proposal to the editors of EA, Dr. McClellan is absolutely correct in suggesting that editorial policy is the at the sole discretion of EA and its editors. It is their responsibility to weigh what is lost or gained in self-imposed limits on publication against the reasons for those limits. Although not Dr. McClellan's style, there are those who easily suppose we are simply trying to take advantage of a scholarly publication venue, to co-opt the academic community. This is not so. I assume EA was willing to publish these notes because they thought this information might be of interest. I have been willing to submit these notes on acquisitions and activities because I also thought they would be of value.


In his last paragraphs Dr. McClellan seems to me reaching unreasonably to make a point about context, but his basic point does not suffer because of it; removal, by human agency or natural force, of objects from context results in the loss of information. It can be stated baldly and I cannot image anyone gainsaying it. Agencies of loss, however, are extremely varied and anyone who pretends to characterize blithely and easily might do well to look with less of a wink at archaeology as practiced and look with a less jaundiced eye at the history, current activities and value of museums and collectors.

I would argue that McClellan's characterization of the Getty as "notorious" in this respect is only inflammatory and, in the end, not even self-serving, since I suppose he also seeks some kind of truth in this. At the same time I would admit that the Getty's legal and informational precautions cannot always be successful. Because I believe also in the efficacy of great art of any period to enlighten and serve as the regenerative spark to a wide range of humane values, I believe in the ultimate usefulness and value of public collections. I would not easily write them off any more than I would be tempted to exaggerate the value and purity of information that might seem more easily quantifiable and so, to many, more scientific and so, to a select few, more valuable.

Although unwilling to see black and white, neither I nor this institution is blind to the many shades of grey. Our acquisition policy is subject of constant internal scrutiny and constructive change. Many other activities of the museum attempt to address these very problems from other angles: protecting sites, marshalling cultural resources and securing control of indigenous collections. Change in any aspect of this will not be forced by specious argument. Nor, and just as importantly, should anyone presume that the Getty Museum will be prevented from change because of a wrongly imputed dream of quick ill-got gain.

Kenneth Hamma

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due 
reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is 
later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 2 Issue 1 - June 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606