Art law Controversies Italy

“Neither condemned nor vindicated”

Marion True on why it is hard to accept the lack of verdict after her five-year trial

Marion True with George Vassiliou, the former president of Cyprus, in 1989

The trial of Marion True, the former antiquities curator of the Getty Museum (which for many years has been one of the leading collectors of world-class antiquities), for conspiring to receive antiquities that had been illegally excavated and exported from Italy, began on 16 November 2005. The Art Newspaper has been covering the trial since its outset. Until March 2009, the prosecution worked through its case, and then the defence began cross-examining witnesses, but True has had no opportunity to present her case directly. Here, she tells The Art Newspaper about the trial and its outcome.

A headline in The Art Newspaper in June 2010 announced that the trial in Rome against me had “collapsed” after five years, the statutes of limitations for all crimes of which I was accused by the Italian state having expired. The court officially recognised this fact on 13 October in a hearing of 12 minutes. Thus, my five-year long trial ended without judgment—neither condemnation nor vindication, a reality hard to accept, given the distorted and slanderous allegations against me. Throughout, my lawyers advised me not to speak out, not to undermine my defence.

What the article failed to explain is that the prosecutor, fully aware of the statutes, consumed the past five years with the presentation of his case, interspersed with endless delays. The court met 43 times over 60 months, usually for two to four hours per session, including time for translation. Nineteen witnesses were presented, mostly carabinieri officers and journalists. Daniela Rizzo, a state archaeologist, dominated 14 sessions alone. She gave interminable details about vases and fragments in the Getty Museum, made unsubstantiated claims about market values (to which she admits to having no experience) and accused highly respected scholars, such as the late Sir John Beazley and Arthur Dale Trendall, of collaboration with smugglers. During this time, my lawyers were able to cross-examine witnesses but not to present my case. There is no right to a speedy trial in Italy, and one is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

I could have chosen to waive the statute of limitations and to continue for another few years, but to what end? This politically motivated process accomplished its goals long ago. It made headlines with groundless accusations that destroyed my reputation and career, while intimidating other American museums into returning objects without question. The media eventually lost interest and most people thought the trial had ended with the return of objects from the Getty in 2007. As Hugh Eakin wrote in The New Yorker in 2010, the prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri had signalled to him in 2007 that “he hopes for a rapid conclusion,” adding: “There’s no reason to go on in outrage against Marion True.” Even Presiding Judge Gustavo Barbalinardo expressed his impatience, remarking in 2009 that he hoped the trial would be over before he retired.

The trial represented only half the time that I spent under investigation for criminal activities. On 1 September 2000, carabinieri officials contacted the office of the United States Attorney in Los Angeles to request co-operation. They suspected me of being in receipt of stolen property, of trafficking and of criminal conspiracy. The US attorney thought at first there must be some mistake, since he knew the Getty, and I in particular, had been working to change the way in which it acquired antiquities. There was no mistake, however, and a decade of interrogations, depositions, orchestrated media leaks, preliminary hearings and a multitude of court appearances began.

What provoked Italy to take such an aggressive position against one individual among all the collecting institutions? An employee of the Getty Museum for 23 years, I had been working for much of that time with Italian colleagues in the Ministry for Beni Culturali— Mario Serio (former director general), Adriano La Regina (former superintendent of the Imperial Fora), Pier Giovanni Guzzo (superintendent of Pompeii and Herculaneum) in particular—to find new ways of building collections at the Getty beyond market purchases. Together with Jerry Podany, the Getty’s head of antiquities conservation, I travelled often to Italy to promote the loan of materials. In exchange we offered conservation assistance and advice, publication and exhibition of the loaned objects. And from 1987, at the request of Getty president Harold Williams, I worked with legal counsel to formulate an acquisition policy for antiquities that called for direct notification of the ministries of Mediterranean countries when purchases were proposed, and requested any information or objections to acquisitions under consideration. The policy also demanded that the ministries have immediate notification of objects acquired and, most importantly, the return of any object that could be proven to be illicitly excavated or smuggled. At the time this policy was the most stringent among major US museums, and was strengthened in 1995 with the requirement that any object proposed for acquisition be published as something known to the scholarly world before 1995.

Beyond rhetoric, the Getty had long shown its willingness to co-operate in the repatriation of objects. Between 1990 and 2005, at my instigation, the Getty Trust returned a number of important pieces that the museum had discovered were illegally removed from Italy. These were returned before 2000, the year I was charged as a felon. Another major return of objects was part of the Francavilla Marittima project, a research effort conceived by my department in co-operation with the Italian ministry of culture, the Museum of Sybaris, the Archaeological Institute in Bern and the University of Groningen, Holland. Hundreds of fragments, illicitly excavated from the site in the late 1960s and 1970s had found their way into the Getty and the Archaeological Institute of Bern. When the work was done, the Getty paid for all the objects in Bern and Los Angeles to be packed and returned to Italy.

Given the Getty’s history of co-operation, it is hard to understand why the Italian government chose to launch an international trial rather than ask for the return of disputed objects. Remarks made to me by senior carabinieri officers suggested that the motive was the recovery of the large cult statue, the so-called Venus of Morgantina (see below). Originally, this statue was not part of the charges against me and also had no connection with the co-defendants in the trial, Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici. It was suddenly raised by Ferri in November 2004 and then appeared on the list of disputed objects when the case was referred to trial in 2005. And though Italy had never formally requested its return, the statue also assumed importance in the negotiations over disputed objects between the Getty Museum and Italy, separate from the proceedings against me.

The Italian police and prosecutor claim their motive was provided in the archives of Medici, seized in 1995 in Geneva. Medici had maintained files of photographs of objects in museums and private collections around the world. These images, some showing sculptures just excavated and dirt still clinging to the surfaces of vases in fragments, were unknown until some were published on the carabinieri website in 1999. I had my first glimpse of most of them during my interrogation by Ferri and his staff at the Getty in 2001, and said immediately that the images proved certain objects were illicitly removed from Italy and should be returned. The Getty Museum had purchased some objects from Medici in 1984 and 1985 before I became curator, but it had otherwise had very limited contact beyond the receipt of a fake kouros head in 1992. The prosecutor had found three letters between Medici and me written over a period of ten years concerning objects either already in the collection or never proposed. The objects in the photos I was shown by Ferri were purchased from other dealers or collectors.

At this point, would it not have been easier for the Italian authorities to come to the Getty with the photos from Medici’s archives and say: “We have evidence that objects acquired by your institution were dug up illegally and we would like them returned?” Not only did our policy state that we would return any stolen object, we had made good on that policy a number of times. Instead, they chose criminal prosecution.

Concerning the charges against me personally, when was I in possession of stolen property? I never held any object presented as evidence against me, let alone any other antiquity of value, nor had I ever seen the Medici photos. In fact, I had proposed for acquisition only 16 objects on the list attached to my indictment. The other 24 objects had been proposed by my predecessors or never proposed. All the pieces acquired were approved by the museum’s board of trustees, after being vetted by the director, the associate director/chief curator, and in-house counsel (after 1986) as well as the president of the trust. Trafficking in stolen goods? I personally never bought or sold any ancient object, and none of the evidence presented suggested that I had.

Finally, I was accused of criminal conspiracy—conspiring with two co-defendants, antiquities dealers Hecht and Medici, as well as an undefined number of “unindicted co-conspirators” that includes antiquities dealers and collectors as well as many scholars and curators, to remove works of ancient art from Italy illegally and acquire or sell them. Medici was a dealer from Geneva who had sold a few important objects to the Getty Museum from 1983-85 to my predecessors, including a fine Caeretan hydria on loan to the British Museum for nearly 50 years and auctioned at Christie’s in London in 1982. He also donated a fake kouros head to the museum for study in 1992. Hecht was well known among American and European museums as a scholar of ancient vases and coins, as well as a major dealer in works of ancient art. Much has been made of correspondence between me and both dealers, but nothing in it suggests anything but appropriate professional relations. Had I been involved in any conspiracy, why would I have refused as fakes objects offered by alleged co-conspirators, such as the (genuine) pelike by the Kleophrades Painter, formerly in the Princeton Museum and now returned to Italy, or condemned as “unacceptable” the room of Roman wall paintings now returned to Italy from Switzerland? These were among the many objects on the art market that I chose not to propose for purchase.

Ferri also alleged my relationship with New York collectors Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman was a conspiracy to acquire objects that I wanted for the Getty Museum. Lawrence and his wife Barbara were long-time collectors of antiquities and close friends. (Lawrence died in 1997, three years before the Italian investigations began and Barbara, though interviewed, was fortunately never accused.) We often discussed objects we found exciting. But what need was there to collude with them to buy objects for the museum from the same dealers with whom I was already in contact? We were, in fact, competitors in the market. The Fleischmans built a fine collection with intelligence and passion—but it was not made for the Getty.

Unfortunately, facts played little role in the Italian court’s charges or the media’s presentation of them. The intention was to use the case against me to condemn publicly the collecting of antiquities and to terrorise museums and collectors, especially in the United States. Remarkably, no European or Asian museum has been pressed in this manner, though there are recently purchased objects in many, pieces that were offered to me for the Getty but that I declined to propose.

The strategy worked extremely well. American museums chose not to join forces to challenge the Italian position, but silently went their separate ways, with directors travelling to Italy to make private deals to return objects in the hope of appeasing the prosecutor. There was even a sense of relief that I was the only target of the Italians. Yet, it now appears that I will not be the only victim. Six months ago, The New York Times announced that a second American curator, Michael Padgett of Princeton University Art Museum, is under investigation together with another group of dealers for charges very similar to those lodged against me. This too in spite of Princeton’s willingness to work with Italy to return disputed objects.

By the time this article appears, the Morgantina Goddess will be back in Italy (though the excavator of Morgantina, Malcolm Bell, has refuted the claim that it comes from this site). It will stand on an isolator-base to protect it from earthquakes designed and provided by the Getty. The publicity generated by the trial will probably draw more visitors for a while but it is unlikely their number will be anything close to the public that visited the Getty Villa, where the sculpture was exhibited in Los Angeles. When I last saw it, the Euphronios/Onesimos kylix was on display not in Cerveteri but in the Villa Giulia in Rome, a trophy shown with thousands of other Greek vases.

What has the return of these objects and others cost the Italian state? My defence fees alone would have paid for years of conservation and education programmes in Italian museums and excavation sites, let alone the cost of the prosecution. At the same time, recent reports of collapsing structures in Pompeii (the House of the Gladiators) and Rome (the Golden House of Nero and the Colosseum) have led once again to outcries about the lack of money for security, conservation and protection by the Italian government.

If the case against Princeton goes forward, perhaps American museums will stand together and not yield to intimidation. Their antiquities collections have been built carefully over more than a century, and are important educational resources in a country that considers the achievements of ancient Greece and Rome fundamental to its own culture. Certainly, methods of collecting in the United States and elsewhere have changed over this time, as have laws and conventions protecting cultural patrimony. But negotiations and collaborations that I and many others promoted with Italian colleagues for years are far more productive in the long run than endless, destructive and expensive litigation.

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Comments

28 Feb 12
15:3 CET

DAVIDT, EL TORO

Typical. The reason for this mess is that the state can no longer compete for works of art, so they resort to extortion and intimidation. Watch, there will be lots of victims after Marion True.

15 Jun 11
23:1 CET

ROBERT RUDOLPH, SAN FRANCISCO CA

As the International Herald Tribune pointed out years ago, the institutions targeted by the Italians were all American. Old World museums who acquired objects by dubious means were not targeted. True was charged, and the Getty was not. Why? Perhaps to encourage a separate deal by the Getty, which brought a prized statue to Italy--perhaps for the first time. There was never proof that the statue--the object that the carbinieri general coveted most-had been taken from the site alleged. This was, putting it kindly, extortion, carried out by prosecutors and police. It has succeeded.

11 Apr 11
2:57 CET

DAN STEPANIUK, HAMILTON, ONTARIO, CANADA

Anyone interested in this case needs to read the book "Loot" by Sharon Waxman. The book calls into question the behaviour of many of the world's leading museums, their lack of cooperation with national authorities, their reluctance to return stolen artefacts, and the shady culture of procurement. It is easy to see how the Italian government would want to make an example of someone when so much of their cultural history is stolen and brazenly displayed in the great museums of the world. The culture of procuring antiquities without any clear provenance may be changing now, but what of the countless antiquities acquired before such conventions were signed internationally? The museums seem to accept little culpability or responsibility for actions in the past, yet proudly display items in their collections which were likely acquired under questionable circumstances. It makes one wonder how innocent Ms. True really is. Her comments in the article tell a clearly biased story of the Getty.

7 Feb 11
14:55 CET

JOHN GREGORY, NATICK MA

Dear Sirs: I am convinced entirely by Ms True's statement, and would like to emphasize her remark to the effect that in Italian courts one is presumed guilty until proven otherwise. Signor Isman is speaking in the spirit of those courts, and darkly implies that wrongdoing will be revealed--if we wait long enough, something may, as in Mr Micawber's phrase, "turn up".

13 Jan 11
20:57 CET

FABIO ISMAN, ROME

The Roman Court’s decision states: “It is not possible to acquit [True] of any of the crimes she has been charged with. The evidence that has been so far acquired does not allow this.” “Based on the documents and testimony already heard, there are serious indications of the existence of an organisation, operating on an international level, dedicated to receiving and trafficking stolen works of art…which were exported illegally and in many cases purchased by the most prestigious museums in the world.” “It is certain that many archaeological finds from clandestine excavations were purchased by the Getty museum during the years when True was curator.” “Documents and testimonies show the existence of intense relations” between her middlemen of this international organisation, “in particular with Medici and Becchina”. Those are the official words from the three judges of the Roman Court, who--since they are still hearing the trail of dealer Robert Hecht--cannot say more, for now.

10 Jan 11
16:4 CET

WAYNE SAYLES, GAINESVILLE, MISSOURI

Is a "transition in museum acquisition policies" really a welcome thing as Mr. Frank (above) suggests? If that "transition" becomes the basis for further nationalist retention of virtually all objects from the past, as UNESCO 1970 promotes, the history of independent scholarship will have been struck a serious blow. Any researcher who has had to work only with objects in the hands of state cultural bureaucracies knows well the limitations that imposes. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that nationalist retention and elitist academic exclusion is forcing independent research back into the Middle Ages. Aggressive calls for repatriation, and repression of international transfer of even mundane and common utilitarian objects from the past, is a growing phenomenon among governments and nationalist institutions. It is, frankly, Orwellian and contrary to common sense. The very system that suppresses public access seeks and depends on public financial support for its existence.

7 Jan 11
18:7 CET

PATRICK FRANK, VENICE, CA

Yes, Marion, you were singled out and made to be an example. You are not nearly as guilty as the prosecutors suggested but never proved. But I think your career is emblematic of the transition in museum acquisition policies. And this transition is a welcome thing.

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