Museums into the Fray: The Marion True trial

Kate Fitz Gibbon Art

Prosecutions of art dealers in U.S. and foreign courts for trading in antiquities are on the rise, but only one criminal case so far involves an American museum official. Last week, for the first time since her trial for conspiracy to traffic in stolen antiquities began four years ago, former J. Paul Getty Museum curator Marion True spoke out in open court. Responding to testimony by archaeologist Daniela Rizzo that a person with True’s expertise should have recognized that objects were looted, True calmly stated that she had always acted properly in contacting Italian cultural authorities to inquire about objects under consideration for purchase by the Getty. True also noted that the museum had returned artworks if there was any proof they had come from illegal excavations, regardless of any statute of limitations. True’s statement hints at the defense’s future strategy in this already convoluted case: to review the museum’s acquisition of each allegedly looted object and place at least some of the burden on the Italian government to explain how its cultural authorities dropped the ball.

The Getty affair began in September 1995, when a raid on a free-port warehouse in Switzerland exposed a smuggling operation run by Italian antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici. Investigators found antiquities, written records of purchases from looters, and snapshots of illegal diggings. A number of well-known artworks currently in the Getty and other U.S. collections appeared in the photographs: some were in unrestored condition and others encrusted with dirt. Medici was convicted of antiquities trafficking in 2004 and his case is now on appeal.

The investigation also turned up correspondence with art dealers Robert Hecht and Robin Symes, and several letters written to Medici by True thanking him for information on the find-spot of certain artworks. According to True, the correspondence was about acquisitions made by her predecessor as curator, Jiri Frell. These letters and photographs led General Roberto Conforti, the head of the Carabinieri art squad, to meet with True and other Getty administrators in 1997. Their discussions resulted in the return of three works to Italy in 1998. In addition, Italian prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri demanded the return of an important statue, said to be of Aphrodite, purchased by the Getty for $18 million in 1988. For years, the Getty refused to give up the statue, asserting that there was no valid evidence that it had come from the claimed site of Morgantina. Malcolm Bell, University of Virginia professor and director of the Morgantina excavations, thinks it more likely that the goddess depicted is Hera and that the statue probably came from a major Sicilian temple site. Nonetheless, the Getty recently agreed to return it to Italy, possibly for exhibit in a tiny village near the Morgantina site.

In 2005, while the Italian government continued to press the Getty for the return of artworks, True was indicted in Italy for conspiracy to receive stolen artifacts. Getty officials eventually decided to return forty major antiquities in exchange for future Italian loans of artworks, and one day after signing the agreement, Italy withdrew its civil claims against the Getty. The same year, True resigned from the Getty due to revelations of an unrelated conflict of interest. Her trial in Italy is still in the prosecution phase after four years. The judge has stated that he hopes it will end before he retires from the bench three years from now.

Italy has had a patrimony law giving the government an ownership interest in antiquities since 1939. Under this law, smuggled antiquities are considered “stolen.” Like many other art-source countries, which are often richer in artworks than in funds to conserve them, Italy tightly restricts the export of antiquities. Italy also requires permits for export by private owners for artworks created as late as the early 20th century. Important artworks may not be transferred even within Italy between private buyers without government permission. Moreover, the Italian Cultural Ministry severely limits loans to foreign museums, which even General Conforti has acknowledged encouraged the illegal market of the 1980s and 1990s.

A number of unusual circumstances brought True and the Getty to their present predicament. The Getty is both the richest and the youngest major museum in the United States, with an endowment of over $6 billion and an acquisitions budget of $100 million a year. Unlike many older museums, it has no lengthy history of donations, aside from the foundation collection of J. Paul Getty, widely considered of marginal quality. The Getty’s collection of antiquities had expanded under True’s predecessor, Jiri Frel, though his acquisitions were often criticized. Under True’s direction the collection increased in both quality and quantity, as she struggled to fill the Getty’s Malibu villa, then being rebuilt to hold only antiquities, with exceptional Greek and Roman objects.

At the same time, True was active and generally admired in the cultural policy field. She was one of the first American curators to insist that museums investigate the provenance of antiquities offered to them for donation or purchase. She was lauded in the archaeological press for her due diligence in securing the return of important mosaics to Cyprus; she organized conferences of museum officials and archaeologists under Getty Museum auspices and encouraged stricter standards for museum acquisitions both at the Getty and for the rest of the museum world. She also championed cooperation with foreign institutions: during her tenure as curator at the museum, the Getty’s research and conservation arm, the Getty Research Institute, contributed substantial funds to conservation and other projects in Italy.

True’s primary job at the Getty, however, was to build the museum’s collection. One of her most important acquisitions was the Aphrodite statue, purchased from the English dealer Robin Symes. She also organized a major exhibition of the private collection of Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman, and in the mid-1990s, the Getty acquired the Fleischman collection, which included many recently marketed antiquities. In part, the Italian prosecution is based upon alleged involvement of True in the acquisition of objects by the Fleischmans from Giacomo Medici, a charge she vehemently denies.

The True case is unusual because it involves actual criminal prosecution of a museum curator by a foreign country and an excruciatingly public airing of a museum’s dirty laundry. The public embarrassment suffered by the Getty and the museum’s vilification in the press was a lesson not lost on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. After months of quiet negotiation with Italian officials, in February 2006 the Met agreed to return one of its most prized antiquities, an Attic krater decorated by the Athenian painter Euphronios. In return, Italy agreed to provide the Met with loans of “works of equivalent beauty and importance.” Other museums were similarly forthcoming after receiving Italian demands. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Princeton Museum of Art, the Cleveland and Toledo museums, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Art have all received official requests from the Italian government to return artworks in their collections. Most have complied, at least in part.

Italy’s success in securing the return of numerous outstanding objects spurred other countries to seek the return of artworks. After a prolonged press campaign by Greece’s ministry of culture, the Getty recently returned a rare 4th century BC gold funerary wreath that Greece contended was illegally removed from Greek soil.

The True case is only one example of the recent challenges American museums have faced related to the collecting of ancient and ethnographic art from other countries. Events such as the pillaging of the Baghdad Museum have made even the least art-conscious of the public aware that valuable archaeological resources are being lost through looting of art for sale. While most claims for the return of artworks could not be sustained in a U.S. court, they undercut public support for overall museum functions. Newspapers and magazines have published exposés on allegedly illicit trafficking involving museums; citizens have organized to promote the cause of repatriation; and museum organizations have rushed to adopt new standards for acquisition and acceptance of donated objects. Negotiations for the return of objects to source countries have been conducted as much in the press as at the table and have featured blatant threats to “make museums’ lives miserable,” as Egyptian cultural head Zahi Hawass has stated, as well as moral suasion.

Foreign museums are not as dependent as American museums on donor support and are less transparent in their operations. Perhaps in consequence, they have been more reluctant to give in to extra-legal demands for return. Just last week, reports surfaced that Italian officials were finding discussions with a Danish art museum much more difficult than with American institutions, although the presumptions for the negotiations were the same. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek of Copenhagen purchased a number of Etruscan and Greco-Roman objects from art dealer Robert Hecht, including a 7th century B.C. two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage. Although documentary evidence from Hecht’s trial indicates that the carriage accoutrements came from an Italian excavation from 1970, the statute of limitations has expired and the Italian argument is based on moral grounds. Prosecutor Ferri stated that he is undecided whether to pursue the case, saying, “The sin has almost been ascertained, let’s see if we will absolve them.”

Kate Fitz Gibbon is a specialist in Asian art and cultural property law, editor and author of Who Owns the Past? Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law (Rutgers, 2005), and a former member of President Clinton’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (2000-2003). She can be reached at