PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ex-Getty Curator Stands Trial for Looted Antiquities


The former curator of the Getty Museum on trial in Italy, accused of receiving stolen antiquities. That story next, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


BLOCK: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

From invading armies to aggressive collectors, Italy has been losing it's antiquities for centuries. Now, the government in Rome is fighting back, and it's determined to recover stolen artifacts. Rome claims many of the treasures are on display in major American museums.

As NPR Poggioli reports, Italy is using diplomacy, as well as the threat of criminal prosecution.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The presiding judge in this Rome courtroom is Gustavo Barbalinardo. He acknowledges that in Italy, the defendant is not required to be present.


POGGIOLI: The case here is against the former curator of Los Angeles's J. Paul Getty Museum, Marion True. It's being closely followed by the international museum industry.

True is charged with criminal conspiracy to receive stolen goods and the illicit receipt of archeological objects. She and her co-defendant, Robert Hecht, an American art dealer, insist they're innocent.

The trial began in the fall, and is moving at the customary snail pace of Italian judicial proceedings. At the latest hearing, art expert Maurizio Pellegrini was a witness for the prosecution. Pointing to slides of items found in a Swiss warehouse, he matched them with artifacts on display in the Getty collection, and testified that Marion True knew the items had been illegally excavated.

MAURIZIO PELLEGRINI: (Through Translator) We found letters concerning this tripod in English and Italian, letters written by Marion True which confirm that the tripod would be bought.

POGGIOLI: Thanks to a 10-year investigation, Italian authorities claim they've traced more than a hundred ancient works acquired through criminal channels to museums in Los Angels, New York, Boston and other cities. Italy is now demanding their return.

University of Virginia archeologist Malcolm Bell, who directs excavations at a major site in Sicily, says the Marion True trial of a serious scholar who built the antiquities collection at a major American museum, has already had a huge effect on American collectors.

MALCOLM BELL: The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Cleveland Museum, the major American collecting museums are giving serious consideration to what they do and how they do it.

POGGIOLI: Bell says New York's Metropolitan Museum has already announced a much tighter purchasing policy for antiquities without proof of providence.

A 1939 Italian law stipulates that any ancient artifact found in the ground belongs to the state and can't be exported without government permission. But its many hundreds of Greek, Roman and Etruscan sites make Italy a pillagers' paradise. Once ripped from the ground by tomb raiders, the looted artifact enters a smuggling network of middle men who fabricate a paper trail of ownership before the objects are sold to dealers in Switzerland, Britain and the U.S.

Things began to change five years ago when Italy and the United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which calls for tighter customs controls on imported artworks.

Thanks to U.S. cooperation, Italy has recovered 185,000 stolen pieces since 2001, nearly twice the number in the previous five years.

Now, Italy wants to go further. The government is directly negotiating with U.S. museums, proposing long-term loans of antiquities if they return several prized artifacts Italy says were looted.

Italian Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione:

ROCCO BUTTIGLIONE: If we can lend these cultural goods to the United States, if there are loans, long-term loans of cultural goods, our rights are recognized, we deduce the chances and the possibilities of the illegal market ,creating legal possibility for American museums to have important Italian works of art for their cultural needs.

POGGIOLI: This is a way, Buttiglione said, to solve the problem in a friendly manner, and to try to avoid going to court.

But Ambassador Mario Bondioli-Osio, former head of the Government Committee for the Recovery of Stolen Art, says with the current Italian legislation, avoiding court is not always easy.

MARIO BONDIOLI: It is very difficult to solve in a diplomatic ways problems arising with someone that, in the mind of the deciding judge, might have committed the crime.

POGGIOLI: In fact, Italy is considering possible changes in legislation that would introduce the concept of compensating the finder of an excavated artifact. The government's determination in trying to recover stolen artifacts is being closely monitored by Greece and Turkey, two other countries plagued by the looting of antiquities.

Archeologists also favor Italy's tough policy because it would end what they say is the devastating effect of stripping an artifact of its roots, its history, and its identity.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.