Marion True, the former curator of antiquities in California's Getty Museum, reputed to be the richest museum in the world, has appeared in court in Rome on charges of conspiring to traffic in looted art.
Dr True, 57, is accused of illegally obtaining 42 fabulously valuable antiquities for the museum during the Eighties and Nineties and risks being sent to jail for eight years if found guilty. She resigned from her post in October.
The trial has thrown a spotlight on the swashbuckling way some of the most famous museums in the United States have built up their collections.
Paolo Ferri, the prosecutor, claims Ms True spent millions of dollars of the Getty's money to buy ancient objects which she knew to have been stolen from sites in Italy. The Italian responsible for bringing many of these treasures to the market was Giacomo Medici, who was convicted of looting and sentenced to 10 years' jail last year. He is appealing against the verdict.
According to Mr Ferri, Medici's name was kept out of all the correspondence between Dr True and her favoured agents in Italy, who included a Paris-based American, Robert E Hecht Jnr, 86, who is on trial with her in Rome. But in letters sent to Dr True by her agents, the location of the objects when they were taken from the ancient sites is described in such detail that it could only have come from the tomb robbers who stole them, Mr Ferri claims.
Dr True followed in the freebooting footsteps of the founder of the California-based museum, the oil tycoon John Paul Getty. But in those days Italy had no law against the looting of its heritage. Now it has one, though enforced with difficulty if at all. But the Getty and other museums carried on as if nothing had changed, it is claimed.
"Ms True has been very hard on Italy," Mr Ferri told The Independent. "When you are willing to pay millions of dollars for a single piece, tomb-raiding becomes an epidemic. This plundering of Italy's heritage cannot continue. These treasures should be enjoyed by the people of this country."
Last week the Getty restored three works to Italy, including a 2,300-year-old Greek vase that was claimed by the Italian government. An American official involved in the restitution said their return "speaks volumes, regardless of whether or not [the Getty] admits guilt".
But Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's Culture Minister, said he would not be satisfied until the remaining 39 items cited by the prosecution came home. They include a colossal 4th-century Greek statue of Aphrodite from Sicily. "Italy is not open to being sacked," he declared.
Franco Coppi, Dr True's lawyer, told the court: "Marion True will defend herself by seeking to demonstrate her absolute good faith. Unfortunately in Italy there have been many cases of archaeological pieces disappearing and of unlawful receiving. What makes this case different is the involvement of such an important museum. My client maintains that she acquired... these items in good faith, convinced of the legitimacy of their provenance."Reuse content