Marion True's defence lawyer speaks out

As the case ends, True's innocence is vigorously asserted

Better times: former Getty antiquities curator Marion True stands alongside a female statue in a museum warehouse in 1988. Last month, charges against her in Italy were dismissed (Photo: Ross Pictures/CORBIS)

“In the sense of trying to comprehend all that’s happened I am in shock. That it has been five years, with never the possibility of airing the defence—it was a very long time,” Marion True, former antiquities curator of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, told the New Yorker. Last month in Rome, she saw charges against her of conspiring to receive antiquities that had been illegally excavated and exported from Italy, dismissed. The case was closed after a marathon five-year trial because the statute of limitations had expired.

The trial began on 16 November 2005, following a ten-year investigation into her associations with co-defendants Swiss dealer Robert Hecht and art expert Giacomo Medici. The case was triggered in 1995 when Swiss and Italian authorities raided Medici’s Geneva store and found thousands of photographs and records which they claimed showed illegally excavated antiquities.

Francesco Isolabella, True’s lawyer, told The Art Newspaper: “The charged crime has been quashed, after ten years of proceedings (five in court). Ms True has provided five personal depositions to clarify the facts; the public prosecutor [Paolo Giorgio Ferri] wasn’t able, throughout the trial, to call any witnesses except one ‘expert’ and the police (nobody else). The only evidence presented was three letters to Medici sent during the time Ms True was at the Getty [1986-2005].” The case involved the acquisition by the Getty of the private collection of Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman which came to the Los Angeles museum by sale and gift. Twelve of the contested objects in the trial were ex-Fleischman Collection.

True told The Art Newspaper in 2008: “At the time (which I can vouch for since I worked there), the Getty acquired actively, and bought from all the same dealers that the Fleischmans and many other museums and collectors had used, including Robert Hecht, Robin Symes, Freida Tchachos, Giacomo Medici and others. The Getty staff had no reason to believe that they were in any way involved with criminal activities. Everything bought or accepted as a gift was vetted by in-house lawyers, senior staff and by the board of trustees before approval.”

In 2004, Medici was convicted in Italy of selling looted antiquities and was sentenced to 10 years in prison; an Italian appellate court upheld the 2004 conviction last year. He has since appealed for the final time to the highest court in Italy, denying the charges. Hecht remains on trial but the statute of limitations on his charges will expire July 2011 according to his lawyer Alessandro Vannucci. “They have never been questioned [in court], nor have other [relevant] witnesses,” added Isolabella.

The trial has had huge implications for museums with antiquities collections around the world, especially those in the US. In 2007, the Indianapolis Museum of Art imposed a moratorium on acquiring antiquities that left their probable country of discovery after 1970. The same year, the Getty Museum agreed to return 40 antiquities to Italy, including star items from its collection such as the seven-foot-tall cult statue of a goddess known as the Aphrodite (Morgantina goddess), in return for important loans and scholarly collaboration.

Isolabella maintains that “the Morgantina was unexpectedly linked to Ms True, 16 years after the Italian authorities were first aware of the Getty's interest in - and later its acquisition of - the piece.” The lawyer insists that True was not only following existing museum procedures, but instituted processes of checking items before acquisition with the relevant nations. “The Getty, after all, supported a study of the Morgantina, through Ms True, which was conducted by a panel of experts, all Italian. But the director of the Morgantina dig, who had declared several times that the Aphrodite did not come from Morgantina [in Sicily], was not among them,” comments Isolabella. The statue is set to be returned to Italy later this year.

In 2008 the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) endorsed much stricter acquisition guidelines in its report, “Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art.” Janet Landay, AAMD executive director, told The Art Newspaper: “We cannot comment on the specifics of Marion True’s case. We do not see the outcome of that trial as having a substantive effect on the practices of our member art museums, which follow AAMD’s guidelines for collecting responsibly.”

True, meanwhile, vented her frustration, telling the New Yorker: “My greatest sadness is that the Italians were able to intimidate the entire American art world, and especially museums, without having to produce any evidence at all….” and also criticised senior Getty figures for failing to step forward to defend her. The Getty responded: “We are pleased charges against Marion True have been dismissed and we wish her the very best as this long and difficult ordeal comes to a close."

Colin Renfrew, who set up the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at Cambridge University in 1996, welcomed the developments in Rome but also criticised the Getty's actions. “It was unjust that senior figures at the Getty did not publicly share the responsibility with Marion True who was clearly not the principal decision maker,” he said.

Renfrew welcomed, however, the “ethical and transparent acquisitions policy for the Getty” later introduced by Michael Brand who resigned as director earlier this year (Brand said that under his leadership the museum was able to “break through a deadlock” and settle restitution claims by Italy and Greece). “I hope that the Getty will now give assurance that this policy will still be strictly followed following Brand's unexpected retirement,” added Renfrew.

So what is the legacy of the case? Isolabella, who calls True a “sacrificial victim”, doesn't hold back: “It is worth considering how the Italian state orchestrated a major campaign to obtain works that are now in less committed and less organised environments than before. Considering the universality of these items [belonging to humanity], wouldn't it have been better to leave them in the museums where they were?”

More from The Art Newspaper


5 Nov 10
14:46 CET


Nicola, if you're referring to the last paragraph of the article, those are the words of True's attorney, Francesco Isolabella, not True. Regardless, I don't think he's showing indifference to the theft of cultural property. Rather, he seems be raising an issue as to what is in the best interests of the antiquities. Notwithstanding that theft, in many cases, was the cause of the antiquities diaspora, he asks whether, at this point, it is better to move them from institutions that he perceives as providing better care than their "home" institutions, or simply leave them where they are.

4 Nov 10
14:52 CET


Ms True's final statement demonstrates that she does not understand, or care, that the acquisition of artifacts of unknown provenance by museums and privates fuels the destruction of archaeological sites all over the world, and the permanent loss of historical information. So what is the (true) legacy of the case? It has to be the “ethical and transparent acquisitions policy" introduced by the Getty and by other museums AFTER the events involving Ms True. I hope, on one hand, that this policy will still be strictly followed and, on the other, that the Italian state will lend the works to committed and organised across the globe.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this