Marion True defence continues

“Stolen” antiquities put under microscope in Getty trial


The latest hearing in the trial of former Getty Museum curator, Marion True, took place on 15 May. It began with the deposition by the state prosecutor, Paolo Giorgio Ferri, of documents relating to a small bronze, which is not among the evidence against Ms True, but which did belong to the Fleischman Collection (items from which do form part of this trial).

Ms True’s defence lawyers continued their cross-examination of prosecution witness, Daniela Rizzo, going over the objects used in evidence against the defendant, starting with the Roman copy of a Diadoumenos head by Polykleitos dug up in 1956, taken from Venosa, bought by Mr and Mrs Fleischman, acquired by the Getty in 1996, and proven two years later by scholar Per Bol to be stolen, and restituted by the museum to Italy. 1998 letters between Marion True, Mr Bol and Mario Serio, then permanent secretary of the ministry of culture, were read out to demonstrate that Ms True co-operated with the restitution claim. Ms Rizzo countered, “at that point she had no choice”.

A discussion of the Fleischman Collection followed. This came to the Getty in two stages: nine objects in 1992, bought for $5.5m; and in 1996, a donation of 248 objects, and 33 bought for $20m. Twelve of the contested objects in this trial are ex-Fleischman Collection, nine among the donated pieces, and three among the acquisitions.

Ms True explained why the museum turned to the dealer Robin Symes and not to the collectors for compensation for the stolen head: the Diadoumenos was a donation, so it was “more appropriate” to contact the person who had sold it to the Fleischmans, she said. Ms Rizzo remarked that in 1996 $20m was a large sum for only 33 pieces, but Ms True said that an independent valuation of the collection for insurance purposes put its worth at $60m: “The price might seem high, but that was its market value then in the US.” Ms Rizzo noted that in Italy insurance valuations tend to be ten times higher than market value, but Ms True responded: “I had to defend this valuation before the director and board of trustees, comparing it with market prices,” and demanded evidence to back up the implication that the Getty had ever inflated values for insurance purposes.

Discussion moved on to the restoration of an antefix (an upright roof adornment) with Maenads and Silenus that entered the museum with the Diadoumenos (on loan for an exhibition in 1993) and has also been restituted. Ms Rizzo asked Ms True why such costly conservation was carried out on pieces that were going to be returned to their owners. Ms True explained: “This is standard procedure in US museums, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. There is nothing odd about compensating for a loan by conserving it. This was not peculiar to the Fleischmans.”

Then it was the turn of a lunette fresco of the mask of Hercules, illegally excavated near Vesuvius, and of which there are three other large fragments. Two were in the Fleischman Collection, one in the hands of dealer Giacomo Medici and one in the collection of the New Yorker Shelby White, the last two now restituted. Ms Rizzo reminded the court that Ms True refused some frescoes offered by Mr Medici because they came from an illicit dig; if those, why not also these? “I am sorry, but I did not realise that the Fleischman fragments belonged to the same group,” Ms True explained.

“You saw [the pieces] in 1993,” said Ms Rizzo, “but you waited until 1999 to write [about them] to Superintendent Guzzo, in whose territory the looting had taken place.” “I was constantly in touch with Mr Guzzo,” said Ms True. “In 1999, I was merely bringing up the question [of the lunette] again; it’s not true that I had not mentioned it to him before. We published the fresco after it entered our collection, and we said that if it turned out to have come from Italy, we would give it back.” During the hearing, the news emerged that the second Fleischman fragment in the Getty will also be restituted.

The defence then considered the guidelines issued by the Getty in 1987 regarding the notification of authorities in archaeologically rich countries. Other pieces in the evidence against Ms True were examined: a red figure Apulian pelike, an amphora by the Dario painter, and a second pelike with the arms of Achilles by the Gravina painter. Discussion became very heated: the prosecution maintained that the third ceramic is the one mentioned in a letter from the dealer Robert Hecht to Ms True, warning her that it is being investigated, while the defence argued that no one can prove that the two are one and the same.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Defence continues'