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Getty Center Restores Art Treasures

The Getty Center is one of the leading art institutions in the United States. It is also major center for restoration of damaged art works. The Getty museum has been embroiled in recent controversies over allegations of trafficking in stolen artwork. Here's a look at the conservation process and at several important paintings now undergoing restoration.

Much of the work that is done at the Getty has been overshadowed by the bad news. A former curator, Marion True, is on trial in Italy for allegedly trafficking in stolen art treasures. Italy has demanded the return of scores of Getty art works, and Greece has pressed claims for the return of other antiquities. Last month, the museum returned two artifacts to Greece.

Getty officials say they are working to resolve disputes over contested art works, and say similar controversies affect other major museums.

And life goes on at the Getty's striking hilltop campus, and its antiquities museum in a recreated Roman villa overlooking the nearby coastline. Every day, thousands of visitors view the museum's extensive collections, or take part in its educational programs. Behind the scenes, experts conduct research and engage in art conservation.

Some of that work involves the careful restoration of damaged pieces of art that belong to other museums. Mark Leonard heads the Getty's paintings conservation department.

"We do the work for free in exchange for having the opportunity to put the pictures on view in our public galleries," said Mark Leonard. "In many cases, they simply are integrated into the existing collection for a period of six months or so, and in some cases they actually catalyze entire exhibitions."

Leonard is now restoring several 18th century paintings for a German art museum. They will be the focus of an exhibition that will open here next year. The highlight is a huge portrait of an Indian rhinoceros painted by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry.

"Her name was Clara," he said. "She was quite a famous rhinoceros in her day, an animal that was traveled throughout Europe in the middle of the 18th century, was in Paris around 1749, 1750, which is when Oudry made this portrait of her."

Next to the painting are two others, also by Oudry. Restoration work on one will be finished in time for the exhibition, and it will go on display along with the portrait of Clara. The second large painting depicts a lion from the animal collection of the French King Louis XV.

The art works are owned by a museum in the town of Schwerin in northern Germany, and were once part of the collection of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Scott Schaefer, the Getty's curator of paintings, says they had been in storage for decades when they were rediscovered.

"They were the pictures most difficult for them to deal with over the years when the ducal collection went into public hands," said Scott Schaefer. "And during the communist era particularly, and Schwerin was part of communist East Germany, it was easier to forget about them and not think about them than smaller more easily handled pictures."

Today, the art works are getting a second life. The canvases have been repaired and flaked-off sections of paint have been covered. Luckily, says conservationist Mark Leonard, these art works suffered only from neglect, not from the intervention of overzealous conservators.

"If a picture has been damaged in cleaning, meaning that someone has used a strong solvent, abraded away original paint, broken through original layers, those are the kinds of damages that are irreversible, because once the surface has been broken and the artist's final workings on the surface have been interrupted or destroyed, that's a bit of magic that you can't put back," said Mark Leonard.

He says each picture has a story, and the story of the portrait of the rhinoceros Clara is an engaging one. The animal was brought to Europe by a Dutch seaman and toured the continent for 17 years. It was the first time Europeans had ever seen such a creature, and Clara became a sensation, inspiring an industry of memorabilia and souvenirs, and this oversized painting.

The story of Clara, King Louis' lion and the other animals will be told in a Getty exhibition called Oudry's Painted Menagerie, which will open in May of next year.