December 18, 2005

The curse of Aphrodite

Posted at 6:26 pm in Similar cases

Former Getty curator, Marion True’s trial in Italy continues to be the source of many related stories appearing in the word’s press. One of the reasons why there is so much discussion over this particular case is that for a long time, Marion True herself had argued for better laws to regulate the acquisitions policies of America’s museums. Everyone accepts that the current problem isn’t one that only afects the Getty, although the institute’s increased purchasing power means that it has more recent acquisitions to be scrutinised than most museums, as well as being a potentially more attractive target for lawsuits.

Daily Telegraph

The curse of Aphrodite
By William Langley and Sarah-Jane Checkland
(Filed: 18/12/2005)

Elegantly dressed in a high-collared coat and wraparound sunglasses, Marion True clattered down the stone corridors of Rome’s central courthouse and out into the waiting mêlée of reporters and television crews. The Italian capital loves a spectacle, and this was one it had been waiting for – the first appearance of the former curator of classical antiquities at the centre of the biggest scandal to hit the art world in decades.

Until last October, Ms True, 57, worked as the head of antiquities at the formidably rich Getty Museum in California. Acknowledged throughout the world as an authority, even her cats carry names from Greek mythology. Now she is out of a job, her luxurious, ocean-front apartment in Santa Monica is up for sale and she could face 10 years in jail if convicted on charges of conspiring to traffic in stolen artefacts, including an $18 million statue of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

At her first brief court appearance in November, Ms True pleaded not guilty. Last week, when her trial resumed, she wasn’t present – but then, it’s not just Ms True who is on trial. Anyone who has watched the descent of the antiquities trade into greed and ignominy knows that it is the nature of the business itself that is really being brought to account.

Traffic in the treasures of the ancient world has grown into a vast criminal enterprise. Every year, tens of thousands of artefacts are plundered from important archaeological sites, and later sold – their provenance disguised – to wealthy Western and Far Eastern collectors and museums. It is an open secret in the trade that a high proportion of the pieces are stolen, and that many museums have bought them with minimal checks on their true ownership.

“The trade is out of control. It is rotten to the core,” says Michel van Rijn, who was renowned in the 1980s as the world’s foremost art fraudster and is now an author and industry whistle-blower. “These people aren’t in it for the glory of mankind or the enrichment of anyone’s culture. They are vultures. The archaeologists work the sites by day and the robbers work them by night. There is too much money at stake.”

As the price of fine art has soared, ancient artefacts have established a new vogue among collectors. Compared to the Old Masters, there is an abundance of them, and the rules of buying are, to put it mildly, relaxed. While the world’s leading museums – the Getty, the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan in New York, and the British Museum – all profess to follow approved buying policies, many curators admit that the marketplace is an ethical minefield.

Four years ago Britain, home to the world’s second biggest art market, signed up to an international agreement, framed by Unesco, to ban trafficking, but there have been few prosecutions, and measures designed to criminalise the activities of rogue dealers have made little progress. “The real solution to the problem of looting,” says Lord Colin Renfrew, the director of the Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, “is to stop buying, handling or displaying looted material. Museums which have no careful ethical policy are indirectly funding the looters.”

To those attempting to curb the pillaging, the trial of Ms True is, therefore, seen as a potential turning point. Since her arrest, the Italian authorities have been working the pre-trial publicity for all it is worth by leaking prime morsels of evidence and trumpeting the credentials of the 200 witnesses likely to be called. The case, expected to last up to six months, has touched a particular nerve in a country where the activities of the tombaroli (tomb robbers) are regarded as a national pestilence. Every year, Italy loses the equivalent of the contents of a medium-sized museum to theft. Yet almost as much disapproval attaches to the highbrow institutions that – while flaunting their bona fides – gladly buy the stolen booty.

“Museums have to stop plundering our cultural heritage,” says Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the chief prosecutor in the case. “It harms not only Italy but the world. If this continues, no country’s history will be safe. What you will have is a great criminal antiquities supermarket.”

Ms True and her co-defendant Robert Hecht Jr, a Swiss-American art dealer who also pleaded not guilty, face charges of conspiring to traffic in stolen artefacts. The prosecution claims that she knowingly purchased dozens of allegedly looted antiquities to adorn the Getty’s vast Malibu galleries. Established and endowed by the late oil tycoon John Paul Getty I – famous for his observation that “the poor shall inherit the earth but not its mineral resources” – the Getty is by far the richest art institution in the world.

Getty died in 1976, an unhappy man. He had long feuded with his five sons and various grandchildren, and had little residual fondness for any of his five ex-wives. Plagued by the dilemma of who to leave his fortune to, he finally opted to leave much of it to himself. Or, at least, to a permanent memorial to his magnificence. Today, the ever-growing Getty endowment is worth around £100 million-a-year.

The museum occupies a large, Romanesque complex overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the “American Riviera”, where its antiquities wing has just undergone a $275 million refurbishment. While no one can doubt the quality of its collections, its spending power has made it controversial. Many believe that its appetite for new acquisitions has inflated prices and helped to spawn a get-rich-quick culture in the once decorous world of art and antiquities. Even John Walsh, the museum’s former director, has said that in much of the art world, the Getty team is regarded as the “barbarians at the gates”.

Nothing of a barbarous nature could be ascribed to the erudite Ms True. A Harvard graduate, she joined the Getty in 1986 and quickly established herself as a powerful force in the fast-growing field of antiquities. Aware of the museum’s image problem, she has spoken sternly of the need to buy responsibly. In 1995, at Ms True’s urging, the Getty adopted what has been described as the most conservative acquisitions policy of any major American museum. As Ms True put it herself: “We would only consider buying from an established collection… so that we do not have the issue of undocumented provenance.”

As recently as 2000, she told a conference of museum directors: “Experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts are made to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely – if not certain – that it is a product of the illicit trade.”

This hard-won reputation for probity is now on the line. Earlier this year the Los Angeles Times obtained internal memos which, among other things, suggested that an internal review by the museum’s lawyers had found that more than half of the 104 antiquities identified by the Getty as “masterpieces” were obtained from suppliers under investigation. In one document from Mr Hecht to Ms True, he writes that an ancient Etruscan urn that the Getty was interested in acquiring had been listed as stolen by the Italian police. The Getty bought it anyway.

In a recent interview, Mr Hecht denied that any of his letters implied that any objects were stolen. Asked if he ever sold looted art, he said: “It depends on what you call looted. I will believe it’s looted when I see the documents that prove it’s looted.”

The Getty memos provide a telling illustration of the close relationship between dubious dealers and the big museums. They reveal that in 1986 Ms True visited a dealer who was selling an unusually well-preserved statue of Aphrodite, probably dating from 400 BC. True was impressed, later telling the Getty’s acquisitions committee that the work could become “the greatest single piece of ancient art in our collection”. The dealer told the Getty that the statue came from an unnamed collector in Switzerland, but offered no proof of its provenance. Despite a fierce debate within the museum, during which Harold Williams, the then director of the Getty Trust, declared: “We know it’s stolen”, the Aphrodite was bought for $18 million – the most the museum had ever paid for an antiquity.

The documents reveal that the two top men at the Getty, Mr Walsh and Mr Williams, discussed the ethics of the museum’s buying policies. In one, Mr Williams described a regular supplier of art to the Getty, a British dealer, as “a fence”. A brief note following a meeting between Mr Walsh and Mr Williams sets out what was seen as the museum’s primary difficulty: “We knowingly buy stolen goods. We knowingly deal with liars by accepting their warranties.”

Both men have confirmed that the documents are authentic, but said that their remarks were strictly about drawing up a new acquisitions policy, not about the Aphrodite specifically. “I was going through various hypothetical situations: What if we receive a stolen object?” Mr Williams said. What if it turns out one of our dealers, say someone like [name of the British dealer deleted], turns out to be a fence?”

Mr Walsh said: “He was not talking about a specific object. Neither he nor any of us had information that any work we were considering buying was stolen.”

The Getty has said that it cannot comment further on issues raised by “privileged and confidential information” from the Getty’s files without jeopardising Ms True’s right to a fair trial. “Based upon the information and evidence that it has seen, the Getty continues to believe that Dr True’s trial should result in her exoneration,” a Getty statement said. Despite its public support for Ms True, the Getty accepted her resignation after revelations that she had failed to properly declare a $400,000 loan from a group of antiquities dealers to buy a Greek island holiday home. On the charges of conspiring to traffic in stolen goods, Ms True is currently saying nothing beyond asserting, through her Los Angeles lawyer Harry Trang, that she is innocent. Puzzlingly, the memoranda have not been passed to the Italian authorities. “It is very surprising to me,” says the chief prosecutor, Mr Ferri, “that they didn’t give me these very important documents.”

The vast profits to be made from looted antiquities have turned the business, during the past decade or so, into one comparable in scale to the drugs trade. Its popularity among criminals has been further boosted by the extremely low risk of being caught and the relatively minor penalties imposed on offenders. Anyone caught with a recently discovered Sumerian stone tablet, the legal owner of which died 2,500 years ago, is not going to earn the kind of jail term that a heroin smuggler might expect. In effect, the marketplace is a villain’s paradise. National police forces tend to view trafficking as a victimless crime, and on a global basis less than 10 per cent of stolen art is ever recovered.

While Italy and Greece are the top target countries in Europe, the richest plunder is currently being gathered in the Middle East – home to several of the world’s earliest civilisations, and a vast treasure house of uncatalogued and mostly ill-secured art. The region’s instability makes the protection of archaeological sites almost impossible. As van Rijn says: “How are you going to tell some poor Iraqi or Egyptian or Syrian, who earns a couple of dollars a month, that he ought to be a good chap and do the right thing and leave something lying in the ground that could feed his family for a year. He’ll laugh at you, and I don’t blame him.”

The freelance scavengers, however, are only the bottom layer of a highly sophisticated pyramid. At the middle level are developed criminal syndicates that smuggle the goods from their countries of origin and, at the top, ruthless and brilliant marketeers. The British antiquities dealer named in the internal Getty documents was, at the height of his wealth and power, virtually in control of the market in high-end antiquities, supplying thousands of pieces a year to major museums and private collectors.

The core of the case against Ms True is that she consorted with dealers to acquire art that she could reasonably assume to be stolen. The Italians claim to have identified at least 42 Getty acquisitions that can be traced to looted archaeological sites. “It is absurd for museum curators to fall back on the old argument that the provenance is unverifiable,” says Mr Ferri. “The rule should be that if they don’t know where something has come from, they shouldn’t buy it.”

Or should they? The issue of “cultural patrimony” has become the single biggest topic in the anguished world of antiquities. Some scholars argue that conservation and study are actually helped by the free flow of artefacts from poor countries with no research facilities, and that attempts to constrain the trade are pointless.

All this puts the elite museums – watchful of their reputations, but hungry for blockbuster exhibits – in a particular quandary. Two years ago, the Met in New York staged an intensely awaited Art of the First Cities exhibition featuring an awe-inspiring display of Mesopotamian antiquities. Little noticed among the treasures was a tiny fragment of carved limestone, known as the Naram-Sin, but it was to become the centre of the most explosive furore to hit the museum world in years. The fragment was loaned by a New York collector, but it came without a “provenance”, and the Met was savaged by international experts, including Lord Renfrew, who accused it of encouraging traffickers.

For Ms True, a formidable scholar, fluent in Greek and Latin, the case is a personal tragedy. Married to a French architect, she is described by colleagues as both vivacious and businesslike. “She is a person who has devoted most of her life to doing the right thing,” says her former colleague Karen Manchester, now a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. “I’m at a complete loss to understand what is going on.”

Under a deal worked out between the museum and the Italian authorities, the $18 million Aphrodite, the prize of the Getty’s collection, is expected to be returned to Italy. And like Ms True, if she is found guilty, the statue could be there for a long time.

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