Getty's antiquities buyer faces trial over stolen goods

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The Independent Online

The woman who for many years was in charge of buying archaeological treasures for the Getty Museum of Los Angeles is to stand trial in Rome in July, charged with receiving stolen goods.

The woman who for many years was in charge of buying archaeological treasures for the Getty Museum of Los Angeles is to stand trial in Rome in July, charged with receiving stolen goods.

The trial is the culmination of an investigation started nearly 10 years ago, which claims to have discovered that, of the many marvels of the ancient world purchased in Italy by Marion True, the 56-year-old curator for antiquities at the J Paul Getty Museum, a huge number had been stolen - a fact of which prosecutors say the curator was well aware.

The case throws a spotlight on the ethics of the curators of the great and wealthy museums of the West, under pressure to amass impressive collections, but also increasingly under pressure from the countries where the treasures came from to explain how they acquired them.

By prosecuting Ms True, from one of the wealthiest and most high-profile museums in the world, the Italian authorities have thrown down a gauntlet to all others who might be tempted to go down the same road.

"We want this case to be a big deterrent," Captain Massimiliano Quagliarella, head of the Carabinieri unit that oversees archaeological theft, told the Los Angeles Times. "It is important to stop the phenomenon of illegal excavations and illegal exportation by eliminating the demand, and thus eliminating the offer."

One problem the authorities in the countries of the classical world face is that plundering is as old as the museums the plunder adorns.

Lord Elgin, who took the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens and shipped them back to London in 1806, once declared piously: "The motives which induced me to carry out this operation in Greece proceeded entirely from the wish to secure for Great Britain, and hence for Europe as a whole, the best possible knowledge, and means of improving it, through the most outstanding works."

The Rosetta Stone, also in the British Museum, was similarly taken from Egypt, as was the Louvre's Winged Victory from Samothrace in Greece; they, too, have moved and inspired millions. But today there is intense pressure for these and many more treasures to be returned to their rightful owners.

The case against Ms True involves some 40 objects acquired by her during the years up to 1988, when she was in charge of the Getty's acquisitions. A full list has not yet been made public, but they include two of the museum's stupendous treasures: a statue of Aphrodite, seven- and-a-half feet high, from the 5th-century BC and carved from marble and limestone, declared worth $20m (£11m) by the Getty when it imported it in 1987; and the 2nd-century BC figure of Tyche, goddess of chance and prosperity, a mere 33 inches tall, made of marble.

In the original arraignment, Ms True was linked to two of her most high profile suppliers: the Geneva-based Italian art dealer Giacomo Medici, and a Paris-based art dealer, Emmanuel Robert Hecht. But the cases were separated when Medici elected to go for a "fast-track" trial, with less stringent evidence rules. On 4 March he was convicted and given a 10-year jail sentence, a fine of €16,000 (£11,000) and an order to pay€10m compensation to Italy's Ministry of Cultural Goods. He is appealing agains the conviction and sentence.

The evidence against Ms True is said to cover much of the same ground as that against Medici. Many of the items that passed through his hands ended up in the Getty, investigators say.

The Getty Museum, says Mark Rose, managing editor of Archaeology magazine, has the "reputation of turning a blind eye on the problematic origins of high-priced antiquities".

Ms True inherited these freewheeling habits, identified with the museum's antiquities curator, Jiri Frel, who resigned in 1984 and, according to Rose, "has had the unenviable job of dealing with many controversial purchases made by her predecessors". She has been responsible for returning several of the museum's prize pieces to Italy.

In 1995, she said: "Now we would only consider buying from an established collection ... so that we do not have the issue of undocumented provenance." But knowing an article's provenance - or history - does not guarantee it was not stolen.

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