Getty Curator in Italian Court over Artifacts

Proceedings resume Wednesday in Italy against the former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Marion True is charged with knowingly trafficking in artifacts looted from archaeological sites. Many archaeologists say this trial is just one example of a larger problem.

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Proceedings resume today in Italy against the former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Marion True is charged with knowingly trafficking in artifacts looted from archaeological sites. Her trial puts the spotlight on the Getty Museum, which many archaeologists say is just one example of a larger problem. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

The Getty Museum was built from the enormous fortune of J. Paul Getty, who left the institution a trust worth billions in today's dollars. With that money, the museum set out to create a world-class collection, and with much fanfare in 1991, architect Richard Meier unveiled a design for a museum on a hilltop in Los Angeles. The Getty documented the news coverage of the time in this video.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #1: And from the day it opens, it's expected to draw more visitors than any other place in Los Angeles.

Unidentified Man #2: The best scenario significance of the Getty project is that it's going to give Los Angeles its Acropolis.

SYDELL: But the Acropolis was considered sacred. The indictment of Marion True, the museum's curator of antiquities for nearly two decades, has made it clear that the Getty is earthbound. Patty Gerstenblith, a professor of law at DePaul University and an expert in cultural heritage law, believes the Italian government may have reason to go after curators at other institutions as well. Gerstenblith says most American museums are not cautious when dealers offer them objects they want.

Professor PATTY GERSTENBLITH (DePaul University): Many museums will accept any story that a dealer might tell them. If the dealer said to them, `Oh, well, it's been known, it was in a private collection,' but doesn't provide any proof or evidence, too many museums seem to be willing to accept just the word of the dealer that it's from an old collection.

SYDELL: Go into any American museum that exhibits antiquities and Gerstenblith believes there will be looted items.

Unidentified Man #3: To the left of the great hall is the Department of Greek and Roman Art, which holds more than 35,000 works.

SYDELL: On the other side of the country from the Getty, New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art boasts of its vast collection of antiquities in its pamphlets, educational materials and videos.

Professor MALCOLM BELL (University of Virginia): They love their objects and their works of art, but they deny themselves the richness of their historical significance.

SYDELL: Malcolm Bell is professor of art history and archaeology at the University of Virginia. He has a special interest in 15 silver utensils in The Met's collection. The museum purchased them in 1982 from dealer Robert Hecht, who happens to be Marion True's co-defendant in Italy. Bell and the Italian government, which wants the pieces back, believe the silver was looted from an archaeological site called Morgantina in Sicily. Bell has been in charge of the excavation there since 1980. He says thieves sneak into the site at night and destroy items of historical significance and take those they think they can sell. Bell says The Met's refusal to really examine the origins of the silver is a loss for the public.

Prof. BELL: The silver treasure from Morgantina that's in The Met is exhibited without any reference to where it comes from, to the house that it was buried in, to the fact that it was buried in the year 212 BC, when Morgantina was under siege by the Romans. None of this evidence can be even mentioned by The Met, because if they admitted that all that were true, they would presumably have to consider more seriously giving the treasure back.

SYDELL: The Metropolitan Museum of Art would not comment on tape for this story, but stated that they have scheduled a meeting next week with Italian authorities to discuss works in the museum's collection. The Met is not the only museum that doesn't like to discuss its policies on the collection of antiquities. NPR contacted several institutions; all declined to talk. John Walsh, who retired from his position as director of the Getty Museum in 2000 after 17 years, admits it is almost impossible for any institution to acquire antiquities without stepping into some murky waters.

Mr. JOHN WALSH (Former Getty Museum Director): The antiquities trade that we were dealing with had been going for centuries and centuries. It had always a proportion of illicit material. If we stepped out of that market, we didn't think there was much of a chance of our stopping it. There were many, many other buyers. And in that circumstance, you know, what's the best that can happen to an object? Is it to go to some private collector's apartment in Switzerland? It seemed to us it was best that the object be made public.

SYDELL: Walsh is right, says law Professor Gerstenblith. The trade in looted objects has been going on for a long time. What has changed is that in the 1960s, she says there was growing understanding of the impact of looting.

Prof. GERSTENBLITH: And in particular, sites in Central America were being looted, were being cut into pieces, sawed apart and being taken back to the United States and sold to museums and private collectors. And it became understood, to some extent, by the general public the rate at which they were being looted, there would be nothing left for people to study in the future.

SYDELL: In 1970, a UNESCO convention prohibited the import and export of looted objects. The US ratified the convention in 1983. It requires the return of stolen items to their country of origin. Gerstenblith has seen improvement. Some institutions, including the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have returned items to their country of origin. Still, critics think that museums in the US and around the world are fueling the trade in looted antiquities. Archaeologist Malcolm Bell says in the 1980s, the Getty, with its vast store of cash, was one of the worst offenders.

Prof. BELL: We thought of the Getty as the chief enemy of scientific archaeology, and it was like a great vacuum cleaner in California that was just drawing things to it from sites all over the Mediterranean.

SYDELL: But Bell says the Getty began to change under the direction of John Walsh and with the leadership of Marion True. True became curator of antiquities in 1984.

Prof. BELL: Marion True's aim was to reform the Getty, but the Getty was like a great ocean liner, and it was on a course, and it's very difficult to stop it and turn it around. I think Marion's achievement was that she changed the policies at the Getty.

SYDELL: By 1995, the Getty had implemented what some say is the strictest policy for the purchase of antiquities of any American museum, so many think it's unfortunate that the Italians singled out True for prosecution. Bell thinks it may be because the Getty is one of the richest kids on the block. The Italian government has indicated that Marion True may only be the first prosecution among a group of curators they are investigating. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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