Treasure Hunt; Marion True: some preliminary thoughts on the New Yorker Interview

David Gill’s LOOTING MATTERS blog.

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Marion True has presented her side of the recent saga of returning antiquities in an extended interview with Hugh Eakin (“Treasure Hunt: The Downfall of the Getty Curator Marion True”, New Yorker, December 17, 2007). True became curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1986. By the second paragraph Eakin had inserted the fact:  In 1995, True had persuaded the Getty to adopt ethical standards requiring objects proposed for acquisition to have been documented and written about by scholars.The implication is clear. True acted with integrity. And this was a point stressed by Malcolm Bell III in his opinion piece, “The Getty’s Italian Job”, in The New York Times, November 28, 2005. Mr. Ferri’s outrage at the looting of Italy’s heritage is justified. By laying bare the archives and warehouses of major dealers, he has revealed corruption at the core of the market.

But in prosecuting Marion True, he has used decades-old evidence against a curator who brought needed reform to the Getty Museum, and I can only hope the Italian courts recognize the good she has done.But what Bell did not know back in 2005 was the case that was developing for the return of antiquities acquired under True’s curatorship. Objects that have been returned to Italy include: 

a. Objects formerly owned by Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman and acquired in 1996. 

b. Attic black-figured zone cup attributed to the manner of the Lysippides painter.

Ex Getty 87.AE.22. Purchased from Fritz Bürki & Son, Switzerland. c. Fragments of the Douris phiale (first fragments acquired in 1981 as a gift from Werner Nussberger).

Ex Getty 88.AE.30 (purchased from Galerie Nefer); also anonymous loan L.92.AE.88.2-3. d. Attic red-figured calyx-krater, attributed to the the Copenhagen / Aegisthus painters.

Ex Getty 88.AE.66. Surfaced in Basel, Münzen und Medaillen; Freiburg, Morat-Institut; purchased from Christoph Leon. e. Attic red-figured calyx-krater, Syriskos.

Ex Getty 92.AE.6 (Robin Symes [1988]; Fleischman collection) and 96.AE.335 (New York, Acanthus Gallery). f. Apulian red-figured pelike, attributed to the Darius painter.

Ex Getty 87.AE.23. Purchased from Fritz Bürki & Son, Switzerland. g. Apulian pelike, attributed to near the group of Ruvo 423.

Ex Getty 86.AE.611. Purchased from Fritz Bürki & Son, Switzerland. h. Marble statue of Aphrodite.

Ex Getty 88.AA.76. Purchased form Robin Symes.Further objects have been returned to Greece: i. Marble kore. Ex Getty 93.AA.24. Purchased from Robin Symes. j. Grave stele of Athanias.

Ex Getty 93.AA.47. Purchased from Safani Gallery. k. Gold funerary wreath.

Ex Getty 93.AM.30. Purchased from Christoph Leon.The wholesale acquisition of the Fleischman collection was clearly a mistake.

But as True says in the Eakin interview: By the time I met Larry Fleischman, he had a big collection, and many things he bought from Symes … And I bought from Symes.I wonder if she remembers her quote from the 1996 interview with The Art Newspaper (J.E. Kaufman, “Getty Decides Publishing Equals Provenance”; and quoted by Colin Renfrew in Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership [2000], p. 70): This [Fleischman] acquisition is in line with exactly what we said we would do … We went out of our way to be clear that we were not saying we would not buy any more unprovenanced material.But there were problems with the Fleischman antiquities. Some were recently surfaced as their histories showed all too clearly.

Renfrew wisely observed: The Getty’s new position as announced in 1995 is thus not quite the radical change of policy which it seemed at first to many observers.Indeed one of the observers who has supported the Getty position is John H. Merryman who cited the museum’s revised policy as an example of the way for a museum to adopt “elaborate due-diligence procedures” (see “Due-diligence procedures are not enough to satisfy them”).

How misguided he was. The revised policy was fatally flawed and has led to the return of antiquities to both Greece and Italy. Eakin could have explored issues such as these as part of a more penetrating interview. But he chose not to do so. 

Image The Athanias stele on display in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

© David Gill.

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The downfall of the Getty curator Marion True.

by Hugh Eakin December 17, 2007

Hugh Eakin, A Reporter at Large, “Treasure Hunt,” The New Yorker, December 17, 2007, p. 62  

Keywords True, Marion; J. Paul Getty Museum; Antiquities; Symes, Robin; Medici, Giacomo; Fleischman, Lawrence; Crime, Criminals

A REPORTER AT LARGE about Marion True, the former curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, who was targeted in an Italian investigation into the illegal trafficking of ancient art. True became curator at the Getty in 1986. At that time, the provenance of pieces acquired by museums was not much discussed. Tells about one of True’s first major acquisitions for the Getty, a cult statue of a Greek goddess shown to her by the dealer Robin Symes. The provenance of the piece was mysterious. The Getty had recently adopted a policy that required the museum to notify the relevant foreign government whenever a work was being considered for purchase. The Italian culture ministry responded that no information was available on the statue. An archeologist working on a Sicilian site that True thought might have been the statue’s place of origin, told her that there was no evidence the statue came from there. Tells about True’s relations with an Italian dealer named Giacomo Medici, who was later convicted of trafficking in stolen goods. The Italian prosecutor in True’s case, Paolo Giorgio Ferri, believes True conspired with Medici to buy looted Italian artifacts. In 1990 True was offered a position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To keep her from leaving, Getty officials promised her a directing role in the transformation of the Getty’s original villa building into a museum for classical antiquities. Discusses proposals made by True in the nineties to discourage illegal trafficking. Her ideas met with resistance. As the Getty continued to build its collection, True decided that it was time to limit ancient-art acquisitions to objects that were known to the archeological community. Tells how, in 1994, True secured a loan from a Greek moneylender to buy a house on the island of Paros. Around this time, her friends Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman agreed to offer their collection of antiquities to the Getty. Once the agreement had been finalized, in 1996, the Fleischmans offered to lend True the money to pay off her high-interest Greek loan. Tells about the investigation into the antiquities trade by General Robert Conforti. In 1997, Conforti met with Getty officials, including True. In 1998, the Getty, working with the Italian culture ministry, arranged the return of three pieces from its collection to Italy. Ferri, the Italian prosecutor, pressured True to return the cult statue, which was thought to be of Aphrodite. On September 1, 2000, True learned that she was being targeted in the investigation, which was tied to photographs belonging to Medici and to correspondence between True, Medici, Symes, and the American dealer Robert E. Hecht, Jr. The Italians argued that museums had used private collectors to launder antiquities. Works in the Fleischman collection were traced to Medici. The Getty, which had initially cooperated with the investigation, balked at giving up major works. In 2005, True was indicted in Rome; later that year, the Fleischmans’ loan came to light and she was forced to resign from the Getty. Today, many of the reforms that True talked about in the nineties have taken hold. Other museums have returned pieces to Italy. In late September, the Getty agreed to return the Aphrodite statue along with several dozen other pieces. The true provenance of the statue is still unclear.