Ex-Getty antiquities curator appears in Italian court

Marion True made a surprise appearance on the first day of the trial



On 16 November, the long-awaited criminal trial brought by the Italian government against Marion True, the former antiquities curator of the Getty Museum, began. The government is charging that Ms True conspired with antiquities dealers Robert E. Hecht, Jr. and Giacomo Medici to receive illegally excavated antiquities belonging to the nation, reportedly for the Getty Museum. Mr Medici was convicted in Italy in 2004 for selling looted antiquities and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The November court date was devoted to procedural questions. The trial will resume in December, with further dates scheduled for January and next June, Maurizio Fiorilli, a legal consultant to the Italian Ministry of Culture, told The Art Newspaper.

Under Italian law, Ms True can choose not to testify. The trial is proceeding with a translator for the defendants, and a jury of three professional judges will decide the case. Ms True voluntarily decided to appear for the trial, making an extradition request by Italy unnecessary. No attempt was made to try to convince US prosecutors to charge Ms True under US law, Mr Fiorilli said.

Mr Fiorilli said that the Italian government’s evidence comes from Mr Medici’s archives, which are reported to include photographs and records of illegally excavated antiquities. Evidence also was obtained from collaboration with officials in Europe and the US, Mr Fiorilli added.

A lengthy evaluation by a Rome tribunal of the evidence found in the Medici archive, relating to Ms True’s business relations with the antiquities’ dealers under investigation, will be central to the trial. Mr Fiorilli added that Ms True’s business relations in Italy and in other European countries “prove that she knew the Italian law” making unauthorised excavation and export of antiquities illegal. The prosecutor will seek to prove the kinds of objects that Ms True was involved with, and their places of origin, he said.

The Getty is not involved in the case. But Mr Fiorilli stated that the J. Paul Getty Trust was “jointly liable” for damage to Italian cultural heritage caused by its officials.

In statements issued in September, the Getty said that it believed that Ms True would be exonerated at the trial, and that it was convinced that it had “never knowingly acquired an object that had been illegally excavated or exported from Italy or any other country”. The Los Angeles Times reported in November that Greece was also seeking the return of antiquities from the Getty, including a gold funerary wreath and other objects from about 400 B.C.

Under Italy’s Law of June 1, 1939, the Republic owns all antiquities situated within its territory, except those privately owned before 1902. The law also applies to any newly discovered antiquities. Appropriation of archaeological objects whether discovered by chance or during an authorised excavation is punishable under the penal code.

The True case has attracted considerable attention in the US, where museums are closely following reports which suggest that Italy is increasing its efforts to recover antiquities which it claims as looted property of the state. Italy recovered three antiquities from the Getty Museum in November, one of which had been the subject of a confiscation lawsuit brought by the US government in California.

In November, Italian officials were reported also to be seeking the return of antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, including a vase signed by the 6th century BC painter Euphronios, acquired by the museum in 1972, and a 15-piece silver service from the 3d century BC, acquired in the early 1980s. In a statement, the Metropolitan said that it had written to the Italian Ministry of Culture in February requesting a full discussion of works in the museum’s collection that were the subject of the Ministry’s concern. The museum “looks forward to such a discussion,” the Metropolitan said. Director Philippe de Montebello was scheduled to go to Rome in late November for a meeting with Italian government officials, Harold Holzer, a spokesperson for the museum, told The Art Newspaper.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was also reported in November to be a target of Italy’s investigation into antiquities it wanted to recover. But the museum said in a statement that while press reports had referred to allegations in non-public Italian court documents about the provenance of certain antiquities in its collection, the museum was not party to the legal proceedings and had not been given the opportunity to review the documents. “We have not been contacted by Italian authorities regarding any objects in our collection,” the museum said, saying it was in the process of contacting Italy to discuss the allegations. If the museum “were to discover that an object in our collection had been stolen, we would return it to its rightful owner,” it said.

The possibility that governments such as Italy might begin to make claims for antiquities acquired decades ago raises new worries for US museums. In 1999, Italy sent tremors through the museum world by succeeding in leading the US government to confiscate a 4th-century BC gold phiale, or platter, which Italy wanted returned from a private New York collector, Michael Steinhardt. At the time, Italy’s relentless pursuit of the antiquity was seen as motivated by the blatant facts of the object’s recent import. It appeared then that Italy would not reach its long arm of recovery into the older collections of museums.

The Italian government is open to cultural agreements with US museums which have bought Italian cultural objects coming from illicit excavations, Mr Fiorilli said.