Monday, January 21, 2013

Antiquities, the IRS and the Getty

Jason Felch has drawn our attention to some of the issues surrounding the Getty's acquisition of amber apparently derived from Italy. There is a key section in Bruce McNall's memoir, Fun While It Lasted:
Jiri Frel was sniffing around my gallery, picking up an amber carving here, a fragment of a marble statue there ... The great irony in this situation was that Frel had no trouble buying a million-dollar statue, but he couldn't acquire the little vases and bits of jewelry he pored over at Summa Gallery ... And as he traced his finger over a pottery fragment, he explained how I could solve his problem while making myself and my clients a bit richer.
It was an ingenious idea. As he identified smaller items he desired—things at Summa Gallery, in Bob Hecht's holdings, or elsewhere—Jiri would notify me. If the object wasn't in my control, I would acquire it, usually on consignment. Then I would find a client to purchase it, at a most reasonable price. The buyer would then turn around and donate it to the Getty. Here, the arrangement turned tricky. Once the donation was made, Frel would arrange for an appraisal that was much higher than it had cost. The end result was a large tax break for the donor, which covered more than the original price for the piece.
A typical deal might involve three fragments of a Greek vase that I had acquired through Bob Hecht for, say, $100,000. A customer would buy them from me for $200,000. Frel would have them appraised as if they had been restored, which would make them worth $500,000. Done correctly—and it was always done correctly—I would profit on the sale. My customer would get more money back from the Internal Revenue Service in taxes than he or she had laid out for the purchase. And Jiri would add something to the Getty's collections. 
The Getty now needs to identify these donations and release information about the appraisals. Were "fragments of a Greek vase" raised in value through attributions to "well-known" pot-painters? Who made the attributions?

Felch and Frammolino have identified one of the appraisers in Chasing Aphrodite (p. 32).

The Getty looks as if it will be having to re-evaluate its acquisitions and to release the full collecting-histories of the objects.

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