Sunday, October 17, 2010

Marion True, the scapegoat...

We will never know whether Marion True knowingly "acquired" or conspired to "traffic in" looted antiquities now that a court in Rome has ruled that the statute of limitations on the two criminal charges brought against the longtime curator had expired. The trial had continued on-and-off for five years during which time the prosecution presented its arguments to the court and called witnesses "who, according to Italian court procedure, were rarely subject to cross-examination." This, together with the fact that the defense never made its case nor did the court ever reach a verdict, means it's virtually impossible to draw any solid, substantiated conclusions with respect to the defendant and the specific allegations made against her. Furthermore, whatever limited conclusions can be drawn these have to be at least partially discounted given the politicization of the proceedings as a result of the Italian government's purported use of the True trial as a platform for its efforts to reclaim antiquities from major American museums. I say "purported use" because my understanding was always that the claims made by the Italian authorities had actually largely been "ethical" rather than "legal" but that the distinction had proven irrelevant in practice because US institutions perceived the claims as legal due to the hugely incriminating evidence found at the Geneva warehouse of Giacomo de Medici (convicted antiquities smuggler and alleged associate of Robert Hecht, Marion True's co-defendant and the dealer she transacted with). Marion True herself discusses, among other things, the "gigantic effect" the trial had on American museums, including the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, in an interview she gave The New Yorker on her "trial and ordeal."

Yet despite no verdict and no airing of the defense, the significance of the case cannot be overstated: it marks the culmination of decades of (unethical, if not illegal) acquisitions by museums (dealers and collectors too) of antiquities of unknown or dubious provenance. It's long been the case that market participants have simultaneously acknowledged the prevalence of looted antiquities in the market while routinely dealing in ancient artifacts that lack adequate provenance and denying the causal link between market demand and the growing profit-making business of looting (evidence of the causal link is practically conclusive). The True trial illustrates this intolerable reality perfectly - the pervasiveness of appallingly low standards in acquisitions of antiquities has been such in the last 20 years that either Marion True thought she could get away with it or even a curator of her knowledge and experience (she served as curator of antiquities at the Getty from 1986 to 2005) could not distinguish between an insufficiently documented antiquity and an illicit one. As the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Maxwell L. Anderson, said, Marion True was being indicted "for what was a practice of American museums."

That a single curator has had to "carry the burden" for the practices of a board of trustees that was fully aware of the risks the acquisitions entailed and approved them nonetheless only to condone them later is undoubtedly unfair, not to mention the fact that the charges were anomalous from the outset since as a curator, True was never the recipient of the objects in dispute- the objects were acquired by the board of trustees on behalf of the Getty museum. However, I want to tell Marion True that her five year-ordeal was not completely in vain. Yes the costs of the litigation were exceedingly high- the personal costs to the defendant as well as the costs associated with the intimidation of American museums by the Italian authorities and the less-than-favorable agreements that resulted- but there were benefits too. In 2008, for example, the Association of Art Museum Directors adopted stricter guidelines for acquisitions of antiquities and, above all, the trial has served as a deafeningly loud "wake-up call" to museums in the US (and, ehem, around the world) that BUYING UNDOCUMENTED OR INSUFFICIENTLY DOCUMENTED ANTIQUITIES HAS GOT TO STOP.

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