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How Much Worse Can the Getty Antiquities Scandal Get?

January 19, 2013

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Jason Felch’s latest LA Times story about the J. Paul Getty Museum’s antiquities collection seems to indicate more specious and falsified provenances will uncovered as museum officials more closely examine their holdings. This plausibly could lead to the repatriation of more works, among them, several dozen carved ambers recently the subject of a new monograph.  According to the article:

The bulk of the Getty’s collection of ancient amber was donated between 1976 and ’83 by Gordon McLendon, a Texas radio man who pioneered the Top 40 format on AM radio. McLendon was not known as an art collector. How did he come to possess a world-class collection of ancient amber? And why did he donate it to a museum so wealthy it had no need of donations?

The answers are in Getty documents and notes collected by Arthur Houghton, a former associate curator for antiquities at the Getty who initiated an internal investigation into the ambers soon after his arrival in 1983. What Houghton found — and Getty lawyers later confirmed — was that McLendon was part of a decade-long looting and tax fraud scheme being run out of the Getty’s antiquities department.

The scheme was orchestrated by Getty antiquities curator Jiri Frel, with help from Bruce McNall, then a Los Angeles antiquities dealer, and Robert E. Hecht, McNall’s supplier. In the late 1970s, the three devised a way to build the Getty’s collection while moving the less collectable inventory in McNall’s Rodeo Drive antiquities gallery.

Hecht supplied thousands of recently looted antiquities from Italy, Turkey and Greece, records and interviews show. Frel forged appraisals that grossly inflated their value, and McNall found wealthy friends to donate them to the Getty in exchange for fraudulent tax write-offs.

Cat. 33, Pendant: Lion’s HeadEtruscan, 550-500 B.C. Height: 28 mm; width: 22 mm; depth: 38 mm; Weight: 13.6 g Gift of Gordon McLendon, 76.AO.80

Cat. 33, Pendant: Lion’s Head
Etruscan, 550-500 B.C.
Height: 28 mm; width: 22 mm; depth: 38 mm; Weight: 13.6 g
Gift of Gordon McLendon, 76.AO.80

McLendon paid $20,000 for the ambers, and, “Frel forged an appraisal that put the value of the ambers at more than $20 million, giving McLendon an inflated tax write-off when he donated the ambers to the Getty.” The article goes on:

McLendon had used the same process to donate hundreds of objects to the Getty. But in 1983, the IRS challenged the amber appraisal and threatened McLendon with tax fraud charges. He was forced to pay a $2.1-million settlement to the government, records show.

Getty officials learned of the IRS investigation and asked the Getty’s outside counsel to conduct an internal investigation into the ambers and several other of Frel’s “irregularities.”

In a confidential report to Getty CEO Harold Williams in May 1984, the attorney concluded that the McLendon donations were part of a far larger problem. Frel had admitted to forging 15 to 25 donation appraisals a year for five years. Ninety percent of those questioned by the IRS had “grossly, excessively overstated the true market value of the items,” the report stated.

And it gets worse:

If the IRS learned of the scheme, Frel and the Getty faced possible criminal charges of conspiracy to commit tax fraud, something that could have led, among other things, to the revocation of the Getty’s tax exempt status.

The Getty’s counsel suggested that the documents “relating to Frel’s corruption” be removed from the Getty so they couldn’t be subpoenaed. Soon after, Frel abruptly moved to Europe, where he remained on the Getty payroll for several years. He died in 2006.

In the end, the cover-up worked: The IRS investigation never caught on to the broader tax fraud scheme, and the thousands of objects donated to the Getty in those years remain in the collection.

But for how long?

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