The puzzle of Marion True

Times Staff Writer

Not long after the Italian government accused Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True of knowingly trafficking in looted artifacts, a group of her friends and colleagues teamed up to vouch for her character.

In days, more than three dozen museum directors and top curators added their names to a letter that went to Getty Trust President Barry Munitz in late June. "We want to attest," they wrote, "to the absolute integrity and judgment of our esteemed colleague Marion True."

Now True is jobless, her Santa Monica condo is up for sale, and as her former Getty colleagues apply finishing touches to the project that was to be the capstone of her career, she and her husband are said to be living in France.

Not only is True's professional reputation as a reformer in peril, her judgment is under debate in museums around the world. Many of those who signed that June 28 letter would rather not talk about it now. And several of True's friends say they still don't understand how such a brilliant, upright woman could land in such hot water.

First, the Italian court case. Then, in early October, the retirement-inspiring revelation that True got help from a professional contact -- an art dealer -- in securing a 1995 personal loan for a vacation home in Greece. Then came reports that the Greeks too are negotiating with the Getty for the return of possibly ill-gotten artifacts.

"She is a person who has devoted most of her life to doing the right thing -- more so than 99% of the people I know," said Karen Manchester, curator of antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago, who spent 11 years working at True's side. "I'm at a complete loss to understand what's going on there."

True isn't speaking publicly. But friends and colleagues paint a portrait of a woman of ferocious intellect and daunting memory, a vase maven who reads Latin, Greek and Italian and bestows names from mythology on her cats. This Marion True knits expertly, took up the lute as an adult, and always seemed the very picture of prudence.

Now True's calendar reads like the script for a Greek drama: First there's her 57th birthday (on Saturday), then the resumption of her Italian court case (on Nov. 16), and then construction crews in Malibu will wrap up work at the $275-million Getty Villa, a satellite museum, amphitheater and center for classical study that True spent 15 years planning.

No matter how her case goes from here, said David Rodes, director emeritus of the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts and a 20-year friend of True, "this is a cultural tragedy for Los Angeles."

True, born in Tahlequah, Okla., was educated in Massachusetts and New York and got her bachelor's degree at New York University. Until recently, she and her husband, Patrick de Maisonneuve, an architecture professor from France, lived in a Santa Monica condo. (That condo just went up for sale, priced at $949,000.)

In 1986, she earned a Harvard PhD and won the job of Getty antiquities curator, one of the most coveted, and thorny, positions in the world of art.

"She had breadth," said John Walsh, former director of the Getty Museum who promoted True to antiquities curator. "She knew about a lot of things, especially for her age.... But the most important thing was that she was a collector. She really has a discerning eye and a quick judgment." Walsh said she also had "the wisdom and uprightness" to make her way in a field "not only full of dubious material but full of untruthfulness and deceit of every kind."

The antiquities curator's job is a strange hybrid, requiring old-fashioned scholarship, teaching skills and street savvy. Over the last 15 years, the field has gotten even more perilous as Mediterranean countries have strengthened their enforcement of laws banning artifacts export and museums have been forced to tighten acquisition policies. Until this year, True was widely viewed as a leading reformer, friendlier than most curators with Italian authorities and in general more open about what she had and what she knew.

But since Italian officials announced their trial plans in May, True's case has loomed as a daunting precedent for any museum holding artifacts obtained from foreign lands by obscure means. Prosecutors say 42 Getty items can be traced to looted Italian archeological sites, and they accuse True of criminal conspiracy to receive stolen goods and illicit receipt of archeological items. True and her former employers say the museum has never knowingly bought a looted item. But beyond that, True and the Getty no longer speak in one voice.

That's because Getty Trust President Munitz accepted her resignation Oct. 1, as The Times prepared to print an article about a loan True received in 1995 to buy a Greek vacation home. In seeking financing for the home on the island of Paros, interviews and documents indicate, True discussed the subject with one of the museum's main suppliers of ancient art, who introduced her to a Greek lawyer, who arranged the loan.

Documents released by True's attorney, Harry Stang, show that True repaid $386,286 and refinanced with another lender a year later. Getty documents show Getty leaders have known of the original loan since 2002.

UCLA's Rodes said he helped start the letter of support in June. Some signers, including Museum of Contemporary Art Director Jeremy Strick, have sidestepped requests to talk about it. Others, including USC Fisher Gallery Director Selma Holo, Autry National Center President John L. Gray and UCLA Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin, would say only that they haven't heard enough information to change their professional opinion of True.

"I'm afraid that she might not be getting a fair shake," said letter signer Andrea Rich, who will retire as LACMA director in November. "I've known Marion for many years, and she's been a real professional. I've read all of the things that have been written in this newspaper about me, and that experience, more than any other, leads me to want to suspend judgment."

Some of those closer to True go a step further. Whatever the details of that Greek loan, they contend, it's high-level politics that have brought her downfall now.

"It's the timing," said Ann Friedman, who worked in the Getty Education Department from 1989 to 1998 and is now manager of grants and foundations for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. "If you've known about this house loan since 2002, why do you bring it out now?"

Friedman, who spoke on behalf of herself, not her institution, places blame at the feet of Munitz, whose leadership and expense-account spending were the focus of a Times investigation in June, sparking an investigation by the state attorney general's office.

With all that as background, said Friedman, it seems clear that True "is being hung out to dry by the Italian government, not because of her own actions but because of the Getty's checkbook. And she's being hung out to dry by Barry Munitz as a smokescreen for his own improprieties of greed."

Through a spokesman, Munitz declined to respond except to note previous Getty statements saying that retirement was True's decision.

Still, for many museum world veterans, the circumstances of that 1995 loan are the beginning and end of the conversation about the curator's job status. "Had I done what True allegedly did, and the museum had discovered it, I'd be out the door the same day," wrote Thomas Hoving, who served as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1967 to 1977, in response to an e-mail question.

While repercussions resound in and around the Getty, longtime friends of True recall her early days at the museum. Manchester remembers meeting True at the Getty in 1982. Manchester was an intern fresh out of UCLA; True, a more seasoned curatorial assistant who'd arrived six months before.

"She cultivated me into the professional that I am today," said Manchester. "She was my mentor, she was my best friend, she was the matron of honor in my wedding."

When True took up playing the lute more than a decade ago, Manchester recalled, the two drove up into Topanga Canyon to visit a luthier. While True tried out instruments, Manchester confessed to the luthier that her own musical ambitions dwindled after her mother told her that she couldn't carry a tune with a breadbox. "That year at Christmas," Manchester said, True "gave me singing lessons. And the note said, 'To right an old wrong.' "

Richard Neer, chairman of the art history department at the University of Chicago, met True when he was 17 and still living with his parents in Cambridge, Mass. "I had this idea that somehow I wanted to be connected to archeology," Neer said. "I wrote to tons of people, and Marion was one of the few who actually answered." At her invitation, he spent the summer living with UCLA students in Westwood, riding a moped to the Getty in Malibu. As a volunteer, he moved busts and wrote up dossiers.

"Working for Marion, you had to be on point, you had to be professional, you had to wear a tie. There was a certain way you had to behave around Marion, because Marion didn't take any guff. You knew that Marion was somebody who was not going to get pushed around."

In her other work hours, True was hunting down works on behalf of one of the world's wealthiest buyers. But she attracted even more attention by speaking up for higher standards while continuing to spend millions buying high-profile pieces from such dealers as Giacomo Medici, convicted last year of conspiring to traffic in looted artifacts, and Robert E. Hecht Jr., who awaits trial as a codefendant of True's.

In 1995, at True's urging, the Getty adopted an acquisition policy that antiquities authority Malcolm Bell III calls the most conservative of any major U.S. museum. But other events of that year figure more prominently in True's troubles now. Not only is that the year she got the Greek loan, it's the year that Swiss police made the Geneva warehouse raid that yielded Polaroid prints showing objects the looters had already sold -- evidence that set in motion the legal gears now grinding in Italy.

Italian authorities contend that 42 of those pictured items went on to the Getty. Whether they did or not, True and the Getty argue, she and the museum had no way of knowing the artifacts were illicit when they bought them.

Prosecutors have not said what penalty they will seek. Though one source close to the case and most observers in the museum world expect the Getty to continue footing bills for True's defense, neither a Getty spokesman nor True's attorney would comment on that question.

It's also unclear whether True will leave France as events of the coming weeks unfold. Italian law does not require that True be present at trial in Rome.

Meanwhile in Malibu, workers attend to details at the villa that True helped rebuild. Constructed as a facsimile of a first-century Roman country house, the Villa served as the main Getty museum from 1974 to 1997. It has been closed to the public since the Getty opened its Brentwood site in late 1997. Though the reworked Villa's public reopening is tentatively set for January, a series of preview days for VIPs and museum insiders is expected to begin in coming weeks.

"There is no doubt that she was the soul of this project," said Boston-based Villa architect Jorge Silvetti, who worked with True for more than a decade.

But will True herself be on hand? The museum's spokesman says she is welcome any time.

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