Has the Getty Museum stopped buying?

If you attended a fine art auction in New York or London in the 1980s, you would more than likely find yourself rubbing shoulders with buyers from Los Angeles' Getty Museum.

Its voracious appetite for acquiring rare artefacts was legend. Today, its halls of old masters art, Greek and Roman artefacts, furniture and antiques are testament to those days.

Getty Museum
The Getty Museum is an artwork in itself

There were claims that the museum was artificially inflating prices. That there was nothing left for the humble collector. That it wasn't fair.

But what was a museum to do?

While other museums struggle to break even, relying on donations of artefacts or money, the Getty had to spend.

'The diffusion of artistic and general knowledge'

In 1976, Oil baron J Paul Getty left $700m to the museum he founded at his Malibu home in the 1950s. By the time the probate had worked its way through the system in 1982, this figure had risen to $1.2bn. And it was all to be put towards the "diffusion of artistic and general knowledge."

To maintain its tax-exempt trust status, the Getty must spend 4.25% of its endowment every year. In 1983 that was $54m. Today it's thought to be in excess of $250m a year.

So why has the Getty Museum stopped buying artefacts?

Well, it hasn't. In 2010, for example, it bought an JMW Turner's Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino for £29.7m ($44.9m) - as part of its required annual spend.  

It has simply slowed down.

It's partly to do with the fact that after the 1980s rush to fill the museum with the finest art and antiquities, the Getty can now afford to be a little more circumspect.

Turner Modern Rome Campo Vaccino
Signs of a slow down? The Getty bought Turner's Modern Rome Campo Vaccino for $44.9m in 2010

Not to mention that while the museum's endowment has grown, this has been far outstripped by the rise in value for rare works of art. Yes, even the Getty, at times, has been priced out of the market, as Qatari royals and Russian billionaires fight over the best pieces.

"We could use up our entire budget on half a painting each year," Timothy Potts, the recently installed new director of the museum, told the Los Angeles Times.

Potts was discussing the Getty's lack of 20th century artworks, but that sector is not alone in having witnessed major price rises in recent years; the Mei Moses old masters index revealed a 6.5% increase in values during 2012.

The Getty is also more reticent than it was in the past since its former head of antiquities, Marion True, appeared in court in Italy charged with receiving illegally attained artefacts. The charges elapsed in 2010.

Hands off our treasure

And then there's the fact that many governments are not at all willing to part with their artworks - even if they are bought legally. Indeed, there is British legislation that ensures artefacts of "special significance" that have resided in the UK for more than 50 years cannot be sold to overseas without first going through a clearing process.

Rembrandt Laughing export ban
Rembrandt Laughing - not heading west
just yet

To this end, the British government recently slapped a temporary export ban on Rembrandt Laughing, a small circa 1620 oil on copper plate, that the Getty "bought" at Sotheby's £16.5m ($25m) in May. If a British museum or other buyer matches that figure before October 15, the painting will stay in the UK.

So where now for the Getty?

Potts states that he has no "wants list" on the acquisitions front.

"You need to be opportunistic when pursuing works of the highest quality," he told the Los Angeles Times.

"But if you have a rule or set of priorities and you decide you're going to wait until a great Caravaggio comes along, you are going to miss 20 other extraordinary opportunities which could end up never being repeatable and the Caravaggio still won't come along, and you're left holding nothing."

Manuscripts is one area that the Getty does look likely to be moving into strongly in the future, if the $6.2m acquisition of a Lieven van Lathem illuminated manuscript last year is anything to go by. So next time you read about a major manuscripts sale, you could be witnessing the Getty in action.

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