In contrast, Potts identified the field of manuscripts as ripe for relative bargains and has already made one major acquisition in this area. The Getty paid $6.2 million at Sotheby's this month for an illuminated manuscript by Lieven van Lathem—whom Potts called "the greatest illuminator of the Flemish high Renaissance."
He last pursued this masterpiece-driven approach a decade ago as director of the Kimbell, famous for being a collection of great works that like the Getty does not try to be encyclopedic in scope. It too was founded in the 1970s by a private collector and has an unusually large endowment — now around $400 million.
Under director Ted Pillsbury in the 1980s and '90s, the Kimbell snapped up paintings by Caravaggio, Velazquez, Picasso and Cezanne. Under Potts from 1998 to 2007, the focus shifted to sculpture, with notable acquisitions including Michelozzo di Bartolomeo's bronze figure of St. John the Baptist, a bronze Greek or Roman head of an athlete from the 2nd to 1st century B.C. and a 1653 Bernini terra cotta figure of a sea god.
"I didn't set out to do this — at no point did my acquisition strategy state that we were going to focus on sculpture," he said. "We just found more sculptures than paintings at the level we could afford."
Sometimes Potts paid market value — as in the case of the bronze head, for which he paid $4.5 million at Sotheby's to beat out other bidders, including the Getty. But insiders say the Bernini (purchased through a private gallery deal) was a steal, since its authenticity was not fully established at the time.
Warner called the Bernini "a major coup" for the Kimbell that shows how Potts had the "courage of his convictions." Potts called it a triumph of scholarship, noting that he and his curators spent roughly a year determining the authenticity before buying the work.
Cuno, who got to know Potts during this time through the Assn. of Art Museum directors, said he was struck by Potts' intelligence and power of analysis. "I was convinced he was trained as a lawyer — he was so precise about his language and ideas," Cuno says.
In fact, Potts was originally trained as an archaeologist, and touring the Getty Villa with him is a crash course on the real meaning of amphitheater (he says the Getty Villa does not have one) and the key features of Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns.
Walking along the Getty peristyle, he also talked about his experience visiting the real Italian villa on which the Getty Villa is based: the Roman seaside estate of Villa dei Papyri, which was buried and preserved under tons of volcanic ash after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.
"It's in a very sad state today," he said of the Herculaneum site, in southwestern Italy. "That's the problem with excavating architecture: You expose these buildings to the weather and climate, and now you have entire houses to preserve with plaster falling off or bricks crumbling."
Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Potts said he wanted to be an archaeologist for as long as he could remember. Raised by a father who was a urologist and a mother with "interests in fashion," his passion for archaeology came mainly from books.
"I still have these books from my 11th birthday that I asked for," he said. "Books on Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, the great civilizations of the old world."
Then, in his first year at the University of Sydney, where he studied philosophy and archaeology, he had the chance to put his growing expertise into action. He was invited to Jordan on his first dig.
"It was a chalcolithic [or Copper Age] site — houses and temples and refuse of daily life, everything from pottery to wall paintings," he said. "We were living on the site in tents. You get sand in your belongings and every part of your body. That's all part of the fun."
But it's not quite an Indiana Jones-style adventure, he added. "Hollywood archaeology bears no relation to the real, slow, painstaking, in some ways tedious activity of excavation.
"In the movies you'd jump down into a cave and clear sand away with your hands — things that really take weeks and months. We actually dig very carefully with tools, one millimeter at a time."
For graduate school Potts went on to Oxford, earning his Ph.D. in art and archaeology of the Middle East. For field work he served as co-director of the excavation at Pella, also in the Jordan Valley, describing his role as "organizing the team, doing all the finances and administration, paying workmen, hiring or firing the cooks."
After his doctorate, he tried his hand at organizing a museum exhibition. He curated a major loan show for the Australian National Gallery that showcased 100 pieces from the British Museum: "Civilization: Ancient Treasures from the British Museum."
It was the first time he worked in the museum setting, and he saw his future in it. "It seemed to me that museums offered the best of both worlds, putting your academic background and knowledge to use in exhibitions and publications that have a much broader audience and impact. That was an exciting revelation to me."
He chose an unusual path to get there, taking a job in investment banking at Lehman Brothers, working in New York and London on mergers and acquisitions and corporate finance. He said his goal was to gain "some real world experience of the kind that would somehow apply to running a small or medium-sized business, as most museums are."