NEW YORK—Last May Marion True, former antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, was charged with conspiring to purchase illegally excavated antiquities (see ANL, 10/11/05). In the wake of her indictment, Italian investigators are seeking to locate additional art objects, believed to be stolen, that are now owned by the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and other U.S. museums.
Italian officials have charged True and her codefendants, Italian dealer Giacomo Medici and American dealer Robert E. Hecht Jr., with conspiring to traffic in looted art.
Maurizio Fiorilli, an attorney representing the Italian ministry of culture, says that evidence gathered by True’s prosecutors includes photographs of thousands of allegedly looted objects that Italy is seeking to identify, locate and retrieve from collections around the world.
“We have found big dealers with connections to Italy, Switzerland, England and the U.S., and we are following these avenues to lead us to evidence,” Fiorilli told ARTnewsletter in a telephone interview from Rome.
The far-reaching case against True—along with a separate investigation by the California attorney general’s office into the financial practices and expenditures of the Getty Trust, which oversees the museum—has prompted Getty officials to create a special committee of trustees to investigate its ethical policies and compliance with the law. True resigned in October after Getty officials determined that, in violation of ethics, she failed to report the circumstances of a loan she had obtained to buy a home in Greece.
The Getty’s special committee is looking into the legal and ethical matters that have beleaguered the institution for months. Members include board chairman John Biggs and vice chair Louise Bryson; philanthropist, archaeologist and former Neutrogena chief executive Lloyd Cotsen; AIG SunAmerica chief executive Jay Wintrob; and former Univision president Luis Nogales.
In addition to the 42 works originally named in the case against the Getty, Italy is now seeking the return of more than a dozen terra-cotta objects in the Metropolitan’s collection, according to Fiorilli, along with 15 Hellenistic silver objects the museum acquired from Hecht in the early 1980s. Spurred by Italy’s example, the Greek government has reportedly renewed demands for the return of four objects in the Getty’s collection.
True, who is scheduled to stand trial with Hecht in Italy this month, has denied the charges against her. Hecht, reached at his New York residence, told ARTnewsletter that the charges were unfounded. “I have never knowingly bought a looted object,” he said. Medici, who could not be reached for comment, was convicted in Italy last year and is appealing a ten-year sentence.
More Than 50 Pieces in Question
According to allegations in Italian court documents acquired by Bloomberg News, the Getty has acquired or handled at least 52 items that were looted or that originated from smugglers. The court documents also name eight allegedly looted objects at the Metropolitan; 22 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and one each at the Princeton University Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Press officers for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art told ARTnewsletter that Italian authorities had not contacted these institutions about allegedly looted works in their collections.
In the case of the Met, Italy is moving forward with a long-standing request for the return of the Euphronios krater, a 2,500-year-old vase that Hecht sold to the museum in 1972. Fiorilli says that Italy has been emboldened to reopen its claim by new evidence from the True case.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Italians have a sworn deposition from True in which she claims that Met antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer identified the exact tomb north of Rome where the krater had been excavated. Von Bothmer denies True’s account, says the Times.
Krater’s Twisting Provenance
Italian authorities have also seized from Hecht’s Paris apartment notes for a personal memoir in which he writes that Medici sold him the krater. Hecht told the Met that he had acquired the work from a Lebanese dealer whose family had obtained it before a 1939 Italian law prohibited its removal.
Hecht told ARTnewsletter that the Medici story was a fabrication, and that the true version of the sale, the acquisition from the Lebanese dealer, also appears in his memoir notes.
Met officials declined to comment on Italy’s claims for works in its collection. But, in a statement, the museum said it had written to the Italian ministry of culture repeatedly since last February “requesting a full discussion of works in the Metropolitan’s collection that were the subject of the ministry’s concern.”
Fiorilli says he plans to meet with Met officials soon and hopes to reach a “gentleman’s agreement” for the objects’ return. If the museum does not agree, he says, he may pursue the case in civil or criminal court in the U.S. or in Italy. Fiorilli says he is still gathering evidence and preparing his cases against some U.S.
The Greek government, meanwhile, is demanding the return of four objects at the Getty. Three—a gold funerary wreath, an inscribed tombstone and a marble torso of a young woman—date from about 400 B.C. and were acquired by the museum in 1993. The fourth is a votive relief bought by J. Paul Getty himself in 1955.
The Greek government reportedly first requested that the Getty return the objects in 1996 and formally renewed the request through diplomatic channels last May, when True was indicted in Italy.