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An interview with former Getty Curator Marion True following her trial in Italy

Following the End of Marion True’s trial in Italy, she is now able to speak freely about the case. What is revealed in this interview suggests that the trial was far more of a political exercise than it was one specifically aimed at her. It also suggests that the Getty was quick to distance itself from the whole thing & jumped at the opportunity to write things off as the actions of a single person – an approach that suggests a complete lack of accountability within the Museum in terms of due diligence when acquiring artefacts.

The New Yorker [1]

October 14, 2010
Marion True on her Trial and Ordeal
Posted by Hugh Eakin

On Wednesday morning, in a Roman courtroom, the long-running criminal case against the former Getty Museum curator Marion True was dismissed. In less than ten minutes of deliberation, judges approved a motion by True’s lawyers to stop the proceedings—which, as I described in The New Yorker back in 2007, concerned classical art of allegedly illicit Italian provenance acquired by the Getty Museum in the nineteen-seventies, eighties, and nineties—because the statute of limitations on all charges had expired.

It was a paradoxical end to a trial that has run for more than five years and has been a fulcrum of Italy’s efforts to reclaim major works from leading American collections. Since the trial began, no fewer than five museums—as well as several prominent collectors and dealers—have entered agreements to relinquish prize examples of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art to Italy. The American Association of Art Museum Directors has adopted strict new guidelines for acquiring antiquities (pdf), and many museums have all but given up on buying classical art.

Yet no verdict in the True trial was ever reached, nor did the defense ever make its case. Since 2005, on a schedule that could be generously called sporadic, the prosecution has been presenting its arguments to the court and calling witnesses, who, according to Italian court procedure, were rarely subject to cross-examination. According to True’s lawyers, the two main charges against Ms. True—receipt of stolen goods and participation in a conspiracy to traffic in stolen goods—were anomalous to begin with. As a curator, True never received any of the objects in dispute; they were acquired by the Getty (in some cases before she became curator) under the authority of its director and board of trustees. Nor did the hearings of the past five years build a case of conspiracy: the emphasis was on the provenance of specific art works, including many that were acquired by other museums.

Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the state prosecutor in the case against True, anticipated such an outcome, if not the timing, as I wrote in 2007:

Ferri has signalled that he hopes for a rapid conclusion—possibly as early as next spring—in which both sides can save face. “It will not be an acquittal,” he predicted. Ferri also told me, “There’s no reason to go on in the outrage against Marion True. The more the trial goes on, the more outrage. It’s better to reach a judgment.”

On Wednesday evening, a few hours after the decision in Rome, I reached True by telephone at her home in France. Excerpts from our conversation follow.

Are you in shock?

That it happened, no. In the sense of trying to comprehend all that’s happened I am in shock. That it has been five years, with never the possibility of airing the defense—it was a very long time. Hopefully it is an end.

You didn’t attend the hearing, even though you knew this motion was going to be filed. Did you think about going?

I had booked tickets over the weekend, but there was a strike in France. It seemed better not to spend endless hours trying to get there. So I didn’t go.

The dismissal means that you were never able to defend your case.

The choice was, did we want to continue and present the defense, or end it? We could have done the defense if we wanted to keep the trial going for another five years. It was my idea to end it. I couldn’t imagine another five years. It was a difficult decision: there never was any vindication. We had a huge list of witnesses we were ready to call. But it was uncertain how many of them would have come to Italy to testify; some of them are dead by now. For my husband and me, the only valuable thing is our lives, at this point, how to get out from under this nightmare: having one hearing, then eleven months go by until the next hearing, and no possibility of mounting a defense, or of questioning the judge. I couldn’t go on with this.

There is the remarkable fact that without ever reaching a verdict, the trial had an enormous effect on American museums.

My greatest sadness is that the Italians were able to intimidate the entire American art world, and especially museums, without having to produce any evidence at all. Why didn’t museums band together and say, “How are we going to deal with this?” They ran off instead to make their own deals—deals which may not exactly be very good in the long run. Why did we hand over all this stuff without asking for more documents? The trial was a gigantic threat that everyone reacted to. The message was, “You could be next.”

Another irony is that precisely some of the changes in museum standards you were calling for in the nineteen-nineties have now come to pass. There is much more talk now of using major loans from archaeological countries in lieu of purchases—something that you had been advocating for many years.

That’s right. But I haven’t seen a genuine opening about loans. There are plenty of things that could be done in loans, possibilities for collaborations. Italy has lent the Chiamera of Arezzo to the Getty, a kind of trophy piece. In truth, there are hundreds of objects sitting in the basements of Italian museums, at Pompeii, everywhere, that need to be conserved. Why not lend them to American museums for conservation work, and so they can be seen?

Has the Getty made any effort to reconcile with you?

No. And I have nothing but the greatest contempt for them in the world. They acted like I ran the place. Above me I had a chief curator who was deputy director, a director, an in-house counsel, a president, a board of trustees to whom the president reported, and a chairman of the board. What about the lawyers who drafted the acquisition policy, who were supposed to be vetting all documents? They were perfectly happy to assure all that [the alleged acquisition of illegal art] was my work. Never once have [former Getty director] John Walsh or [his successor] Deborah Gribbon stepped forward to say one word about their responsibility.

How do you feel now?

It is a great reprieve for me. When I realized it is all finished, done, that I’m free, it’s the marking of the end of an ordeal, and that has to be marked and has to be celebrated.