Indictment Targets Getty’s Acquisitions

Times Staff Writers

In a long-running legal battle with broad implications for museum collections worldwide, a senior curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has been indicted here on criminal charges involving the acquisition of precious antiquities in this archeologically rich country, authorities in Rome said.

Marion True, 56, curator for antiquities at the museum and director of the Getty Villa, is accused of criminal conspiracy to receive stolen goods and illicit receipt of archeological items. It is also alleged that True in effect laundered goods that were purchased by a private collection and then sold to the Getty in paper transactions that created phony documentation.

The plunder of Italian treasures has gone on for many years. Despite efforts to stem it, valuable art -- some of it stolen -- has made its way into the hands of major museums and collectors like the Getty, authorities believe. The criminal indictment of a top curator was seen as an indication that Italian officials are taking more aggressive steps to curb such practices.


Getty officials said they had cooperated in the investigation and they defended True.

If the prosecution is successful, the Italians intend to pursue cases at other museums. The plunder of Italy for its artworks is a crime tantamount to “stealing history,” the indictment maintains. By attempting to prosecute an official from such a rich museum, Italian authorities said, they hope to send a clear message that they will no longer tolerate the vast and systematic robbing of antiquities from a country replete with historical treasures.

“We want this case to be a big deterrent,” Capt. Massimiliano Quagliarella, who commands Italy’s Carabinieri paramilitary police unit that oversees archeological theft, said in an interview. “It is important to stop the phenomenon of illegal excavations and illegal exportation by eliminating the demand and thus eliminating the offer.”

He and the main prosecutor on the case briefed a reporter on the contents of the indictment. The prosecutor asked that his name not be published because the case is pending and he did not want to appear to be trying it in the press. The trial is scheduled to begin in Rome on July 18, at which time the full details of the indictment will be disclosed.

Several attorneys who specialize in cultural heritage issues say that prosecuting a museum curator is unusual but not surprising in a field fraught with conflicting professional agendas and national laws.

“The fact that Italy is following through with this reflects greater frustration of countries that can’t seem to stem the flow of antiquities,” said Lawrence M. Kaye of the Herrick, Feinstein law firm in New York. “They are going to look for other measures until they are able to do so.

“I do think it’s problematical if museum curators, particularly reputable ones, are going to be the subject of indictments around the world. It certainly sends a chill out, warning people to be very careful about what kind of antiquities they are buying.”

The case is the latest example of national efforts to retrieve lost artworks. Greece wants the British Museum to return the marbles that Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon and wants the Louvre to hand over the “Winged Victory” statue taken from the island of Samothrace. Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone, also at the British Museum. Throughout the world, museums are attempting to identify and repatriate artworks taken from Holocaust victims by the Nazis.

The indictment of True comes after nearly 10 years of investigation. The case involves about 40 items acquired by the Getty in recent years, the authorities said. Investigators have not released a list of the objects, but they said that two particularly notable Greek statues of deities were included.

One sculpture, a keystone of the Getty’s collection, is a 7 1/2 -foot likeness of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, carved in marble and limestone in the 5th century BC. The Getty imported the work in 1987 and declared its value at $20 million when it cleared customs. The other work, a 33-inch figure of Tyche, the goddess of fortune, was made of marble in the 2nd century BC. It is part of the collection amassed by New York art patrons Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman, acquired by the Getty in 1996 as part gift, part purchase.

True is traveling outside the U.S. and could not be reached for comment. But the Getty issued a statement expressing disappointment in the action: “During the course of the Italian authorities’ preliminary investigation, the Getty reviewed and provided to the prosecutors thousands of pages of documents from our files. We trust that this trial will result in her exoneration and end further damage to the personal and professional reputation of Dr. True.”

The prosecutor will not decide what penalty to seek until shortly before the trial, but authorities indicated that it is likely to be much less than the 10-year sentence handed down to Italian art dealer Giacomo Medici, recently convicted of trafficking in antiquities.

Originally, the charges against True were part of a larger case that included Medici and a Paris-based art dealer, Emanuel Robert Hecht.

The cases were divided when Medici requested a “fast-track” prosecution under rules that allow shorter sentences in speedier trials. Medici was convicted, sentenced and ordered to pay fines late last year. He is appealing the decision.

Hecht has been barred from entering Italy for his alleged role in selling looted Greek silver to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The evidence against True, Italian authorities said, is similar to that used to convict Medici, including photographs of items that authorities believed might have been stolen. Medici was involved in numerous sales of artifacts that ended up at the Getty, investigators said.

Italian prosecutors traveled to Los Angeles and New York to investigate the case. True was also deposed in Rome on March 15 and 16, the Italian authorities said. Getty officials have said they have found no evidence of wrongdoing. A lawyer for True, Francesco Isolabella, has described the acquisitions made by his client as being carried out “in the clear light of day.”

The Getty has a policy of returning objects to their countries of origin should evidence indicate that is the right thing to do. But the legal action in Italy comes at a time when the multifaceted Getty Trust is mired in controversy over the departure of Getty Museum Director Deborah Gribbon, who resigned in October citing philosophical differences with J. Paul Getty Trust President Barry Munitz.

The case is also shaping up as a major distraction to the long-awaited reopening of the villa. The Roman-style facility on the edge of Malibu was the Getty’s all-purpose museum until 1997, when the new museum opened at the Getty Center in Brentwood. The villa has been closed since then for renovation and redesigned as a study center exclusively devoted to antiquities. After repeated delays, the facility is expected to open to the public at the end of the year.

True, a leader in the field of antiquities, has worked at the Getty for 23 years. She spent her first two years, 1982 to 1984, as an assistant to antiquities curator Jiri Frel, who was hired in 1973 by the museum’s founder, oil baron J. Paul Getty.

Frel built the antiquities holding quickly, acquiring showpieces and a huge study collection through purchases and gifts, but he was forced to retire in 1984 after disclosures that he had traded inflated appraisals for donated antiquities.

True was promoted to the position of associate curator upon Frel’s departure. She took charge of the antiquities department in 1986, the year she received her doctorate from Harvard University.

On True’s watch, the Getty’s antiquities collection has continued to grow -- under international scrutiny.

In 1999, the Getty took the much-publicized step of returning to Italy three works: a 480 BC Greek terra cotta drinking cup that was illegally excavated; a 2nd century torso of the god Mithra stolen from a private Italian collection; and a 2nd century Roman head of an athlete illicitly taken from an excavation storeroom. In announcing the decision to return the objects, the Getty credited True’s “vigilance and extensive contact with specialists in ancient art.”

The towering sculpture of Aphrodite at issue created a furor in 1988, soon after the museum unveiled the artwork, purchased the previous year. Italian authorities promptly launched an inquiry, charging that the statue might have been unearthed by scavengers and smuggled out of Sicily in the 1970s. The controversy died down when no evidence materialized, only to boil up again in the indictment of True.

The current legal action also has renewed questions about Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities amassed by Lawrence Fleischman, who died in 1997, and his wife, Barbara, a member of the Getty Trust’s board of directors. In 1994 and 1995, when the Getty and the Cleveland Museum of Art displayed about 200 works from the collection in a traveling show, some critics objected to the lack of documentation. The prosecution of True alleges that the Fleischman collection was used to launder Getty acquisitions.

In 1995, the museum adopted a formal policy against acquiring antiquities that lacked documentation or were not part of an established collection. The following year the Getty acquired about 300 pieces from the Fleischmans. Museum officials said most of the items were donated but did not disclose the value of the collection. Estimates in the press have pegged it from $60 million to $80 million.

In the last decade, the Getty has sharply reduced its collecting of antiquities. When the villa reopens, the existing collection will fill the galleries and the program will concentrate on archeological conservation and research.

Wilkinson reported from Rome and Muchnic from Los Angeles.