STEALING BEAUTY; Tomb Raiding, Antiquities Smuggling and the Determination of the Greek and Italian Governments to Reclaim Their Own Have Tarnished the Reputation of the World's Richest Museum. but Who Is to Blame for Trouble at the Getty? Step Forward London Art Dealer, Onetime High-Roller Turned Penniless Ex-Con, Robin Symes. Godfrey Barker on a Case of Taking Liberties with Statues

Article excerpt

Byline: GODFREY BARKER

In sunlit Los Angeles, times are hard for the world's richest museum, the Getty. In 2004, its popular director, Deborah Gribbon, resigned. She had differences, she said, with her boss, the president and chief executive of the Getty Trust, Barry Munitz. Last month, Dr Munitz resigned. He was also vague, but he has been accused of living high on the hog (a Porsche SUV and unlimited first-class air fares on the Getty's tax-free money). For this he has attracted investigations into the Getty by California's Attorney General and by the US Council on Foundations, a Federal watchdog.

Dr Munitz has also been accused of turning a blind eye to accusations against the Getty museum's antiquities curator, Marion True. Last October, Mrs True resigned. She was especially vague. She, however, stays in the Getty limelight, for she is on trial in Rome. She is charged by the Italian police with trafficking in stolen antiquities.

Some of those stolen goods come from a board member of the Getty Trust, Barbara Fleischman. She, too, resigned last October. There are some more resignations (notably another Getty Trust man, protesting at the stuffing of the board with the CEO's pals) and some larger trouble, too. It includes an unexpected Christmas present for the Getty from the Minister of Culture in Greece - a writ. The Greek government and police are also suing over alleged stolen goods, four antiquities whose return they have been seeking since 1996.

How did it happen? One general answer is that it is hard for the saintliest human beings to live purely close to an endowment of [pounds sterling]5.5 billion. But there's a more interesting answer. None of this would have happened but for the existence of the Getty's London connection: an art dealer called Robin Symes.

Few journalists know Symes. Britain's former number one antiquities dealer by sales has spent 20 years refusing interviews at his St James's gallery in Ormond Yard. He has a lot to hide. Even Sotheby's was told in 1989 that its antiquities administrator James Hodges would be 'sorted out' if he asked too many questions about Symes' connections with art smugglers. Hodges - who lost his job and ended up in Knightsbridge Crown Court charged with forgery, false accounting and theft of a terracotta bowl and a bronze helmet, and was jailed for nine months - was visited by two heavies with a mission to tell him 'not to upset Mr Symes again'.

Symes' lavish tastes may be compensation for a life of tragedy. As a toddler, he saw his mother stabbed to death by a soldier. His art-dealing wife Letitia, who ran a gallery on the King's Road, became a schizophrenic.

Then, reportedly, she was 'diagnosed' a nymphomaniac. They divorced and she later died of alcoholism. One of their two sons, Quentin, died from heroin abuse. Symes believed that a 1979 thrombosis handed him a brain haemorrhage at 49.

Whatever the truth, Symes' life changed with one meeting. A rich Greek with shipping money, Christo Michailidis, called at the King's Road gallery and sold him some antiquities. They became friends. When Symes was homeless after his divorce, Michailidis invited him to stay at his flat. They stayed together ever after. Robin Symes Ltd never made Michailidis a director, but it floated on the Greek's container ships. On Christo's money Symes competed for every major trophy to appear on the Graeco-Roman market. He built up one of London's biggest stocks ([pounds sterling]11.06 million by 1995, [pounds sterling]125 million plus by 2000) and rich clients with it, including the Getty Museum.

Symes and Michailidis followed those treasures around the world, from Gstaad and St Moritz in February, to the Greek Islands in July, to Paris and New York in the autumn. Symes came to love money. He was living in a [pounds sterling]6 million Victorian house in Chelsea's quiet and leafy Seymour Walk, with busts on pedestals round the swimming pool, a silver Rolls and a Bentley; luxury on demand lay in the Michailidis/Papadimitriou island residence in Schinoussa, in the Cyclades. …