Marion True Resurfaces

MARION TRUE, curator of the Getty Museum. LA Times photo by IRIS SCHNEIDER. 10/24/99
MARION TRUE, curator of the Getty Museum. LA Times photo by IRIS SCHNEIDER. 10/24/99

Geoff Edgers managed to snag an interview with Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum, and the subject of an antiquities-trafficking trial in Rome. A trial that even Paolo Ferri admits was only to “show an example of what Italy could do.”

I don’t imagine many will change their view of True based on the reporting or her comments. There is nothing especially revelatory here—perhaps its best viewed as a reporting coup by Edgers in getting access to True. But its also an initial first step by True in seeking to get her own book published. The piece even links to a few small excerpts of her memoirs. Here are the handful of paragraphs which stood out to me:

A decade after her downfall, True knows that she was singled out, with Hecht, by the Italians to strike fear in American museums. The strategy worked. The Getty and others, fearing prosecution, returned hundreds of objects worth millions of dollars.

True was never found guilty — the trial ended in 2010 without a judgment – and the curator maintains her innocence. But today, for the first time, she is talking openly about the way she and her museum world colleagues operated. Yes, she did recommend the Getty acquire works she knew had to have been looted. That statement, though, comes with a qualifier:

If she found out where a work had been dug up from, she pushed for its return. In contrast, many of her colleagues did little, if anything, to research a work’s source. None of them were put on trial.

The pursuit of True was aided by raids of dealers and a massive leak of internal Getty documents to a pair of Los Angeles Times reporters. That paper trail linked looted sites in Italy to the museum’s Malibu galleries.

True plainly did recommend the acquisition of looted material. A revelation that few if any in the museum community have acknowledged publicly. But the fact that Edgers fails to acknowledge in his reporting is the damage done to future sites. The sums of money paid by the Getty fueled more looting.

  1. Geoff Edgers, One of the world’s most respected curators vanished from the art world. Now she wants to tell her story., The Washington Post, August 19, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/the-curator-who-vanished/2015/08/19/d32390f8-459e-11e5-846d-02792f854297_story.html (last visited Aug 20, 2015).

A postscript to "Chasing Aphrodite"

la dea di Morgantina

Ralph Frammolino, one of the co-author’s of “Chasing Aphrodite” has a cover story in the November issue of Smithsonian Magazine. It recounts his unsuccessful attempt to interview Renzo Canavesi, a man identified as the previous owner of the statue formerly known as the “Getty Goddess” but now called “la dea di Morgantina”. He wasn’t willing to talk, but we are reminded again of the great reporting done on the statue and the Getty:

While Jason [Felch, his coauthor,] was reporting in Sicily, I went to Switzerland to interview Renzo Canavesi, who used to run a tobacco shop and cambia, or money-changing house, near Chiasso, just north of the Italian border. For decades the border region had been known for money-laundering and smuggling, mostly in cigarettes but also drugs, guns, diamonds, passports, credit cards—and art. It was there in March 1986 that the goddess statue first surfaced in the market, when Canavesi sold it for $400,000 to the London dealer who would offer it to the Getty. 

The transaction had generated a receipt, a hand-printed note on Canavesi’s cambia stationery—the statue’s only shred of provenance. “I am the sole owner of this statue,” it read, “which has belonged to my family since 1939.” After the London dealer turned the receipt over to authorities in 1992, an Italian art squad investigator said he thought Canavesi’s statement was dubious: 1939 was the year Italy passed its patrimony law, making all artifacts discovered from then on property of the state. After a second lengthy investigation in Italy, Canavesi was convicted in absentia in 2001 of trafficking in looted art. But the conviction was overturned because the statute of limitations had expired.

It’s a good summary of a very fine book. And as I’m reading the story again, I’m reminded of Marion True and the Getty and the cover up and the duplicitous nature of her public comments in favor of protection, all while she was acquiring objects. There must be, I’m sure, a story like this for the repatriations from the other museums. But that reporting has not been done yet.

  1. Ralph Frammolino, The Goddess Goes Home, Smithsonian, Nov. 2011, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Goddess-Goes-Home.html?c=y&story=fullstory (last visited Oct 21, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Did Marion True Ever Catch a Looter or Dealer?

One of the stolen Mosaics at issue in the case

Some folks on the internet are not too pleased about the letter I collaborated on with Noah Charney re-examining Hugh Eakin’s review of Chasing Aphrodite. A pointed response by David Gill here, and another critic wonders “whether anything done by Marion True herself actually led to the capture and conviction of a single looter of archaeological sites, or advanced any “Research into Crimes against Art”?

Yes, she certainly did, according to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. As anyone should know who claims to study looting of archaeology and heritage, Marion True was the hero of one of the most prominent antiquities cases of the last thirty years, AUTOCEPHALOUS GREEK-ORTHODOX CHURCH OF CYPRUS vs.GOLDBERG, 917 F. 2d 278 (7th Cir., 1990) (available here). The case involved an antiquities dealer, Peg Goldberg, as well as Michel van Rijn. A helpful summary of the case is available here from IFAR.  I discuss the case at some length in  an article where I argue the nation of origin’s law should be applied more often in cross-border trafficking in pieces of cultural heritage.

But with respect to Marion True, she is the unabashed hero of the case. From the opinion by Chief Judge Alex Bauer:

Peg Goldberg’s efforts soon turned to just that: the resale of these valuable mosaics. She worked up sales brochures about them, and contacted several other dealers to help her find a buyer. Two of these dealers’ searches led them both to Dr. Marion True of the Getty Museum in California. When told of these mosaics and their likely origin, the aptly-named Dr. True explained to the dealers that she had a working relationship with the Republic of Cyprus and that she was duty-bound to contact Cypriot officials about them. Dr. True called Dr. Vassos Karageorghis, the Director of the Republic’s Department of Antiquities and one of the primary Cypriot officials involved in the worldwide search for the mosaics. Dr. Karageorghis verified that the Republic was in fact hunting for the mosaics that had been described to Dr. True, and he set in motion the investigative and legal machinery that ultimately resulted in the Republic learning that they were in Goldberg’s possession in Indianapolis.

(emphasis added)

The opinion is also widely cited because of a concurring opinion by Judge Cudahy embedding the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1970 UNESCO Convention into cultural heritage law, a precedent which has had a number of important effects.

Marion True is no saint, nobody would argue she is, but her story is more complicated than merely painting her as the endpoint for looted antiquities. She did so much more, as Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino explain in their book. Italian officials will tell you if asked that the case was brought against her because they had the evidence, not necessarily because she was the worst offender. And yes, she was instrumental in returning at least one looted object.  group of looted objects.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

What did go wrong at the Getty (and elsewhere)?

La dea di Morgantina, as she was displayed at the Getty

The New York Review of Books has published a mostly polite back-and-forth between Hugh Eakin and the authors of Chasing Aphrodite, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. In June Eakin offered a rather tepid review of the book (Felch and Frammolino deemed it “begrudgingly complimentary”). Noah Charney also took note of the review and he and I collaborated on a letter to the Editors of the NYRB, which was not published. I reprint the text of our letter here:

We would like to revisit Hugh Eakin’s review of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museums (“What Went Wrong at the Getty” July 13, 2011). As Mr. Eakin points out, the central antagonist, the former Getty curator Marion True, stands for many as a symbol representing the heart of the larger problem of museums purchasing illicit antiquities. And yet she was the museum-world’s most outspoken critic of the acquisition of looted antiquities. Chasing Aphrodite tells the story of the scandals at the Getty Museum, related to their purchase of looted antiquities and the use of fraudulent appraisals to secure grossly-exaggerated tax benefits. The authors admirably demonstrate that key officials at the Getty new full-well that the treasures they were purchasing were illicit, yet they bought them anyway. Pressure from the Italian government, particularly on the part of the former Minister of Culture, Francesco Rutelli, and the brilliant lawyers, Maurizio Fiorilli and Paolo Giorgio Ferri, has led to the return of numerous looted artifacts purchased by major American museums, including the Met and the MFA, but most of all, the Getty.

Mr. Eakin does well to note that Dr. True, while certainly guilty of serious wrongdoing, is not the central villain in the story of looted art, nor is she even the most culpable individual featured in Chasing Aphrodite, a point mentioned by Paolo Giorgio Ferri as well as others such as Fiorilli and Rutelli, who have collaborated with our our organization, ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes against Art), an international non-profit research group on art crime. When one compares the number of returned objects acquired under the direction of Philippe de Montebello at the Met, one should perhaps wonder why he received accolades and a grand retirement while Dr. True was made an example of. Italian officials had a case against her and in order to prevent further illicit acquisitions they chose to frighten and deter other curators, officials, and museums and drag them into cooperation with the cultural heritage laws of nations like Italy. She was selected because the Italian legal team had a vast array of damning evidence against her, much more so than they had against others who were equally guilty, at the Getty and other museums. As Chasing Aphrodite notes, the Getty in many ways “threw her under the bus” when this came to light, in an effort to distance the institution from the person.

Since long before her trial in Rome began, Dr. True has tried to preach against other curators and museums making the mistake of violating heritage laws. The cynic would say that her only regret was having been caught, but there seems to be a genuine passion in her call for resisting the temptation of a beautiful but looted object, and working to end the purchase by museums of illicit antiquities. Indeed, few have spoken out against the perpetuation of the illicit trade in antiquities with greater fervor.

Becchina sold the Getty this Kouros, which may be fake

The 2011 ARCA Award for Art Policing and Recovery was given this July 9 and 10 in Amelia, Italy at ARCA’s annual Conference on the Study of Art Crime to Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the lawyer who spearheaded the case against the Getty. As he made clear in his remarks at the ARCA conference, an array of prominent officials at the Getty were lured into buying looted art by three renowned leaders of large-scale organized looting rings, Robert Hecht, Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina, who are truly to blame, and would shame even the villains of a Greek tragedy. While Dr. True is no saint, she does not represent the core of the problem. And in fact she played a part in setting in motion a sea-change in the way in which museums acquire antiquities. For those efforts she should be applauded, and perhaps even put before the ARCA Trustees and Board of Editors of the Journal of Art Crime for an annual award to recognize the good work she did, even while she found herself unable to resist the pressure to acquire some beautiful but looted objects.

Noah Charney
Adjunct Professor of Art History, American University of Rome & Founder and President, Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA)

Derek Fincham

Asst. Prof. South Texas College of Law & Academic Director, Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA)

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Should a Museum Hire Marion True?

la dea di Morgantina

Malcolm Bell thinks so. He holds a position as emeritus professor of Greek art at the University of Virginia and the co-director of the American archaeological excavation at Morgantina. He has written a long review of Felch and Frammolino’s ‘Chasing Aphrodite’. Morgantina was the site of course where the limestone goddess was looted, and had it not been looted, Bell may well have recovered it and its full context. In 1988 when the goddess was sold to the Getty for $18 million, Marion True sent him photographs of the sculpture, asking if he knew about it. He did not, though he does write that his “lack of knowledge offered no form of assurance that it did not come from Morgantina”.

So it is quite surprising perhaps that Bell comes to the conclusion that the book ‘undervalues’ the contribution of Marion True to efforts at reform. He concludes with the following paragraph:

Today the archaeologist’s belief that ancient sites must be protected, and that ancient artifacts are best studied when we know most about them, is widely shared by our museum colleagues. That there has been a convergence of views is owed in good part to Marion True, whose bitter experience offers lessons to all parties. Her contributions far outweigh her mistakes, and were I today to be asked to recommend someone to fill a major museum position, she would be the first person to come to my mind.

Will partisans accuse Bell of not reading the book because he makes a controversial argument, or instead take his arguments on the merits?

  1. Malcolm Bell, The Beautiful and the True, wsj.com, July 2, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303339904576405983959162302.html?mod=googlenews_wsj (last visited Jul 2, 2011).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Marion True Interview

The Chimera d’arezzo, on loan at the Getty from the Museo archeologico di Firenze 

Hugh Eakin has an interview with Marion True in the online version of the New Yorker. She seems relieved her trial is over, but also a little angry that she was the sacrificial curator:

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.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/10/marion-true.html#ixzz12j9eQuDR

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Five-year Trial of Marion True Ends

The Italian case against former Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True, seen at the Los Angeles museum in 1998, has abruptly ended.
Marion True, while still at the Getty

Jason Felch reports today that the trial of ex-Getty Museum curator Marion True concluded with a “whimper” today.  That seems exactly right.  No verdict was reached, no dramatic finish, only the mundane operation of an Italian legal technicality which ended the trial because too much time had elapsed. 

Italy’s renewed focus in recent years on the flow of antiquities into American Museums has resulted in a number of embarrassing returns by American institutions, and no one exemplified that shaming more than Marion True, who would be photographed every time she entered the court.  This trial has been proceeding along in fits and starts for the last five years.  When she was charged, it was the first time an American Museum official was charged by a foreign government, but it has not been the last.  The trial was a lightening rod of sorts, channeling opinions about the antiquities trade and the American Museum community, all to one very high profile, but also very slow legal proceeding.  As Felch points out, during the 5 year legal proceeding we have seen the return of more than 100 looted or stolen antiquities from American museums to Italy.   

  1. Jason Felch, Charges dismissed against ex-Getty curator Marion True by Italian judge [updated] LA Times Culture Monster, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/10/charges-dismissed-against-getty-curator-marion-true-by-italian-judge.html (last visited Oct 13, 2010).
  2. Nadja Brandt, Italy Drops Conspiracy Charges Against Ex-Curator Marion True, Getty Says, Bloomberg, October 13, 2010, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-10-13/italy-drops-charges-against-ex-curator-marion-true-getty-says.html (last visited Oct 13, 2010).
  3. Elisabetta Povoledo, Case Involving Former Curator Marion True Ends, Arts Beat, New York Times, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/13/case-involving-former-curator-marion-true-ends/ (last visited Oct 13, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com