Charges are dropped in Getty case

Times Staff Writer

A Greek criminal court on Tuesday dismissed charges against former J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True for her role in the purchase of an illegally excavated golden funerary wreath.

In an Athens hearing that lasted less than 15 minutes, a three-judge panel agreed with True's attorney that the statute of limitations had expired for the alleged crime. True was not at the proceedings.

The decision ends the most serious troubles facing True in Greece, which, along with Italy, has accused the former curator of knowingly purchasing looted antiquities, a charge she has denied.

Pending is an investigation of several artifacts of minor value found in True's Greek vacation home during a raid in April 2006. In Rome, True remains on trial for allegedly trafficking in antiquities looted from Italy.

Over the past year, the Getty has returned the funerary wreath and three other items to Greece and agreed to send 40 more ancient objects back to Italy, conceding it was the right thing to do.

"Whereas the decision today was based on the statute of limitations, at no stage of these proceedings was any proof of a crime presented by Greek prosecutors," said Harry Stang, True's American attorney.

True's Greek attorney, a law professor in Athens, could not be reached after the hearing because he was teaching.

The Getty purchased the wreath in 1993 on True's recommendation, despite concerns she raised months earlier that the transaction would be "too dangerous." As with all acquisitions, the purchase was approved by the museum director, Getty president and board of trustees before being acquired.

As first reported in The Times in 2005, True learned of the wreath in March 1992 when a fax arrived from Munich, Germany, at her Getty office, according to internal Getty records and interviews with Greek investigators.

The note -- handwritten in slightly awkward English -- offered an ancient golden crown of finely wrought leaves and branches. It weighed nearly a pound and was crafted about 400 BC. The asking price was $1.6 million.

The person offering the wreath gave his name as "Dr. Preis." True had never heard of him before, she later said.

'Bizarre' meeting

Two months later, records show, Preis arranged to meet True in a bank vault in Zurich, Switzerland, to show her the wreath. He arrived with a Serbian associate named Kovacevic. What transpired in the bank vault that day isn't clear, but True was disturbed by the experience, records show.

A middleman in the deal, antiquities dealer Christoph Leon, wrote to the curator apologizing for the "disaster" and "misbehaviour" of the two men with whom she had met. In a letter obtained by The Times, True replied that the experience was "certainly bizarre."

"Some comedy," True wrote to Leon. "Mr. Kovacevic and whoever was impersonating Dr. Preis have done tremendous damage to a great object. I hope you will find a possible buyer for it, but I am afraid that in our case it is something that is too dangerous for us to be involved with."

Four months later, the Getty purchased the wreath from Leon for $1.15 million.

In her proposal to the board, True said all surviving samples of such wreaths "come from tombs" and said that the Getty's was "probably from Macedonia." The dealer signed a warranty, saying the wreath came "from a private Swiss collection."

The Getty wired its payment to an account in the name of Leon and the two Greeks.

Before the acquisition, the Getty had sent inquiries to Greek and Italian authorities about the funerary wreath. Both governments raised concerns that the object -- the most important of its kind and previously unknown to scholars -- must have come from an illegal excavation. Neither, however, could provide evidence of such an excavation.

Looted wreath

A subsequent investigation by Greek and German authorities found that the wreath had most likely been looted from northern Greece, where ancient Macedonians crafted such objects for royal burials.

Investigators learned that in the months before the bank vault meeting, Kovacevic and the two Greeks carried the wreath around Europe in a cardboard box, offering it for sale. They described the objects as the "golden wreath of Philippos," a reference to the father of Alexander the Great, who was Macedonian.

As for Dr. Preis, German authorities confirmed True's suspicion: The Swiss collector was a flimsy facade. "For this person, there is not even one single clue that exists," German investigators concluded.

Greek cultural authorities asked the Getty several times to return the wreath, beginning in 1996. The Getty dismissed the demands with requests for more evidence and waited months before replying to renewed requests.

Then in November 2005, Greek cultural authorities grew tired of waiting. They forwarded the case to a criminal prosecutor, who shared evidence with Italian authorities also investigating True.

In April 2006, Greek investigators raided True's vacation home on the Greek island of Paros and found several unregistered antiquities, some of which were built into the home. Though the objects had little significance, Greek authorities promised to press charges.

The same Greek vacation house had led to True's sudden resignation from the Getty when The Times reported that she had accepted a loan from one of the Getty's major antiquities dealers to purchase it. True repaid that loan by taking another loan from True's close friends and two of the museum's biggest donors of antiquities, Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman.

After months of investigation, Greek authorities accused True of receiving stolen property in her purchase of the wreath. Soon after, the Getty agreed to return the wreath to Greece. True complained bitterly in a letter to Getty officials that returning contested objects while she was facing charges could be interpreted as "tacit acceptance of my guilt."

The Greek prosecutor also accused Leon, Kovacevic and the two Greeks of smuggling the stolen wreath and selling it to True. In pretrial hearings, many of the charges against True's co-defendants have been dismissed because the allotted time to try the case has expired.

True's attorney has argued that California law should apply to his client's alleged crime, because she is American and was in California when the wreath was purchased. By ruling in True's favor Tuesday, the Greek court agreed that California's five-year statute of limitations for receiving stolen property had expired.

jason.felch@latimes.com

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