Time Limit Ends Antiquities Case Of Ex-Curator
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
Published: October 13, 2010
ROME — The case against Marion True, the former curator of antiquities at the J.Paul Getty Museum, ended abruptly on Wednesday, after a court here ruled that the statute of limitations on her alleged crimes — receiving artifacts stolen from Italy and conspiring to deal in them — had expired.
The trial had dragged on intermittently for five years. Numerous witnesses testified for the prosecution, which argued that Ms. True knowingly bought ancient artifacts of dubious provenance for the collection of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The trial was widely believed to be the first instance of a museum curator facing criminal charges for such alleged crimes.
Her Italian legal team had not yet begun to call witnesses in her defense. Ms. True, who was first formally investigated in 2000, has maintained her innocence.
She served as chief antiquities curator at the Getty from 1986 to 2005, stepping down shortly before her trial began. Her indictment was closely followed in the news media and the museum world, where standards pertaining to the acquisition of antiquities have been the subject of significant debate in recent years.
“The case invited scrutiny into what had been collecting practices that were not unusual in the American museum world of the 1980s and 1990s,” Maxwell L. Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, said in a telephone interview from New York.
The trial was a wake-up call, he added. “The notion that a single curator could be indicted for what was a practice of American museums led us to review how American museum collections were being built, ” he said. In 2008 the association adopted a “no provenance rule” forbidding members from acquiring antiquities that could not be adequately vetted. Ms. True “sacrificed herself on behalf of other museum directors in America,” Mr. Anderson said.
Paolo Ferri, the prosecutor who built the case against Ms. True and has since retired, said Wednesday that the trial had served as a signal to museums that buying objects without provenance had to end.
Over the years as Mr. Ferri made his case in the Rome courtroom, lawyers for the Italian state negotiated a series of agreements with various American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for the return of objects with hazy provenance.
The Met was the first American museum to come to an agreement, in February 2006. In exchange for long-term loans, it returned 20 artifacts, including a renowned Greek vase known as the Euphronios krater, acquired by the museum in 1972, and pieces of Hellenistic silver purchased in 1981 and 1982.
In September 2007, the Getty — which boasts one of the top collections of ancient art in the United States, built largely by Ms. True and another curator, Jiri Frel — agreed to return 40 antiquities that Italy claimed had been looted from its soil before the museum purchased them.
During Ms. True’s tenure she returned several artifacts to Italy when informed they had been stolen, including a 2,500-year-old kylix, or drinking cup, by the Greek artists Onesimos and Euphronios; a bronze Etruscan tripod; and some 3,500 objects from the archaeological site at Francavilla Marittima in Calabria. And in 1995 she persuaded the Getty to adopt strict standards requiring objects the museum was considering buying to be documented by scholars.
“She was instrumental in changing how the Getty and other museums approached acquisitions,” said Harry Stang, her Los Angeles lawyer.
Maurizio Fiorilli, the lawyer for the Italian state who negotiated the restitution agreements with American museums, described Ms. True as “a contradictory figure” who bought antiquities “without carrying out the proper due diligence,” even as she tried to raise the museum’s acquisition standards. “And she was an employee, faithful to the Getty,” he said in a telephone interview.
In its decision on Wednesday the court acknowledged that the 7 ½-year statute of limitations on the conspiracy charge had expired on July 11; it said the 10-year statute of limitations on the charge of receiving stolen goods had run out in 2007.
Francesco Isolabella, one of Ms. True’s Italian lawyers, said he called her at her home in France after the decision. “She said she was happy that after 10 years the trial was over,” he said, adding that she was relieved that “the tornado that destroyed her life had finally passed.”
Ms. True’s co-defendant, Robert Hecht, 91, is standing trial on the same charges; in his case the statute of limitations is due to expire next July, said his lawyer, Alessandro Vannucci.
A version of this article appeared in print on October 14, 2010, on page C1 of the New York edition.