May 31, 2005

Museums & the illegal antiquities trade

Posted at 12:50 am in Similar cases

The Age has an article following on from the Marion True indictment covered a week ago. It raises a number of interesting points about the way antiquities are acquired, not least in the comment: “In 1995, the Getty announced it would only acquire antiquities with sound provenance.” 1995? surely a reputable institution ought to have stopped doing this a lot longer ago than that?

The Age (Melbourne, Australia)

Museum in firing line
May 31, 2005

The Italians want to stop the illegal trade in antiquities. Peter Huck in Los Angeles considers the consequences for the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Judicial proceedings can move at a glacial pace in Italy, but, after a 10-year investigation into stolen Italian antiquities, Roman prosecutors have in view a very high-profile scalp: the antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Last month, a Roman court charged Marion True, 56, with knowingly receiving stolen goods. She is also accused of using false documents to help launder artefacts acquired by the Getty from a private collection.

The case, which goes to trial in Rome on July 18, could have far-reaching consequences for the relationship between museums and international art dealers.

If successful, prosecutors have promised to pursue plunder allegedly housed in other museums.

“We want this case to be a big deterrent,” said Captain Massimiliano Quagliarella, head of the paramilitary Carabinieri police unit that investigates archaeological theft.

“It is important to stop the phenomenon of illegal excavations and illegal exportation by eliminating the demand, and thus eliminating the offer.”

In a brief statement, the Getty said it was “disappointed” the Italians had decided to try “our extremely well respected antiquities curator”. The museum believes the trial will result “in her exoneration and end further damage to the personal and professional reputation of Dr True”.

Certainly, the news comes as a blow to the Getty, which was rocked in October by the sudden resignation of director Deborah Gribbon, following a feud with the president of the Getty Trust, Barry Munitz.

True joined the Getty in 1982, serving as assistant to Jiri Frel, the museum’s first antiquities curator, hired in 1973. Two years after Frel quit in 1984, disgraced by the news that he had over-inflated the value of donated antiquities, True took over. An avid collector, she nonetheless returned several looted or stolen Greek and Roman objects. While the full details of the Italian case remain unknown until July, the case is believed to involve some 40 objects acquired by the Getty. They include a 5th century BC sculpture of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The 2.3 metre statue – valued at $US20 million ($A26 million) in 1987, when the Getty imported it – attracted controversy following claims it may have been smuggled from Sicily in the 1970s.

In 1995, the Getty announced it would only acquire antiquities with sound provenance.

“We would only consider buying from an established collection that is known to the world,” True told The Art Newspaper, “so that we do not have the issue of undocumented provenance.”

Yet 92 per cent of the Fleischman horde – the Getty’s largest antiquities gain – had no archaeological provenance. Scholars slated the deal as an example of how the flow of illegal antiquities is tacitly condoned and abetted by collectors and museums. Critics of the museum’s “freewheeling past” saw a slippery slope; a strategy via which unprovenanced items in private hands gained spurious legitimacy in the public realm – a move that may prove disastrous.

In all fairness, True inherited a collection amassed in part through questionable purchases. She has made some effort to end this practice, refusing in 1988 to buy a Byzantine mosaic that had been stolen.

She has also repatriated plundered artefacts, a well-publicised move that might rebound on other treasures: one of three stolen objects returned to Italy by True in 1999 was a Roman head from the Fleischman collection.

While it is hard to put an accurate figure on this illicit global traffic, Britain’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research estimates the annual haul as between $US 50 million and $US2 billion. In recent years, the trade has also attracted drugs and arms smugglers.

While the Getty case highlights the illicit antiquities trade, it also illustrates the tension between Western museums that wish to hold onto treasures – sometimes acquired in dubious circumstances – and nations that seek to recover what they regard as their national patrimony.

Recently, the trend has been towards grudging repatriation. Italy recently returned the Axum obelisk, looted in the 1930s, to Ethiopia.

But other items – such as the Elgin Marbles from Greece and the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, both housed in the British Museum, or the Winged Victory statue from Greece at the Louvre – remain contentious.

In this context, the Italian case against True sends a clear message.

“Foreign governments are frustrated by the continued looting of their antiquities,” says New York attorney Howard Spiegler, who specialises in cultural heritage issues.

“These indictments reflect that frustration.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, True was originally indicted as part of a wider case featuring two of the Getty’s major suppliers: Italian art dealer Giacomo Medici and an expatiate American dealer, Emanuel Robert Hecht, based in Paris. This case was split when Medici opted for a “fast-track” trial with less exacting evidence rules, hoping for a reduced sentence.

Medici’s gamble failed. He is appealing a 10-year jail term, fines and compensation.

Hecht allegedly sold looted Greek silver to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The evidence against True is apparently similar to that used against Medici. So far, True has kept quiet, other than providing Italian authorities with a deposition in March.

Her Italian lawyer says the curator’s transactions were conducted “in the clear light of day”.

The Italian bombshell is a major embarrassment for the Getty. As director of the Getty Villa, a faux Roman villa due to reopen this year after refurbishment, True might have expected to savour this triumph. Instead, she’ll be fighting to save her reputation.

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