Opinion

Marion True Does Not Deserve Our Sympathy

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Table support in shape of griffins attacking a doe (325–300 BC), marble and pigment, South Italy. The table is one of the antiquities the J. Getty Museum returned to Italy. (via Bibi Saint-Pol on Wikimedia)

Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, made headlines recently by giving her first interview since 2007. The appearance came as a surprise to some, since True had been disgraced when put on trial by Italy in 2005 for allegedly conspiring to have archaeological sites looted to produce artworks for the Getty’s collection (the trial ended without a verdict in 2010 due to an expiring statute of limitations; True was explicitly not absolved of the charges, though). She was later forced to resign — ostensibly not for her legal troubles, since the Getty paid for her defense, but for accepting loans for a vacation home in Greece from a dealer and two collectors who had sold objects to the Getty.

As Seph Rodney noted in an article for Hyperallergic, Geoff Edgers’s interview with True represents her attempt to take control of the narrative. She hopes to rehabilitate her reputation, and is considering publishing a tell-all memoir to show how she was unfairly “singled out” for punishment. Edgers and Rodney portray True in curiously neutral, occasionally even positive, terms, given what is known about her activities at the Getty. Edgers, for example, buries True’s public admission (finally!) that she had knowingly purchased looted art in his sixth paragraph, and he passes without comment over her rationale: that she would “press for the return” of looted art if she learned where it had been found. He notes that “many of her colleagues did little, if anything, to research a work’s source. None of them were put on trial.” He accepts True’s characterization of her prosecution as an “absurdity.” Rodney, on the other hand, offers no opinion regarding True’s ethical deficiencies, though he does write that True was “certainly scapegoated.”

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“Venus of Morgantina” via Davide Mauro on Wikimedia. The sculpture was returned to Italy in 2011. (click to enlarge)

So it’s worth stating again just a few of the things True admitted doing or is alleged to have done over a nearly 20-year career as curator. In Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino’s Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum — the most important source for True’s activities — True is said by a former co-worker to have known that documents of authenticity for a purchased work, the famous Getty kouros, were forged. She acquired through gift and purchase a collection of antiquities that was almost entirely without findspot (meaning they were likely illicit), claiming the book she’d previously published on these objects satisfied the acquisition policy. She was friendly with, and purchased many objects for the Getty from Giacomo Medici, convicted in 2005 of running a business that looted objects from sites in Italy, smuggled those objects to Switzerland, and then sold them. As True admitted in a hearing, Medici had described the objects for sale to her in a way that made clear they were looted, but she purchased them anyway. Many of these objects were later returned, meaning she and the museum’s administration and trustees had wasted tens of millions of dollars from a tax-exempt, non-profit trust. In 2005 the Getty identified 350 objects purchased from suspect dealers, many of which had been acquired by True.

What are the consequences of these activities? First, the destruction of archaeological sites and the knowledge that could be provided by careful, professional excavation. Without excavation records the objects can serve only as evidence of their own existence, unable to tell us how they were used, in what context, and by whom. “Pressing for the return” of objects thus comes far too late. Second, this looting of sites, being illegal, is frequently carried out by gangs associated with existing criminal networks, making buyers of these objects supporters of criminal enterprises that exploit impoverished and powerless local citizens. This complicity even extends to the indirect financial support of dictatorial and genocidal regimes such as the Khmer Rouge (and now likely ISIS as well — the US State Department announced on September 29 that it had direct evidence of ISIS profiting from the trade in illicit antiquities).

What punishment did True endure for all this? She lost her job and her career was destroyed, to be sure. But she served no jail time and paid no fines. She lives in France with her husband, and has continued to vacation at her second home in Greece. She reportedly even retained her Getty pension.

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The “Getty kouros” (via Sarah Murray on Flickr)

Of course, as she is quick to note, no other curators and collectors who also routinely trafficked in looted antiquities have been publicly disgraced in the same way. They retained their jobs, their prestige, and — surprisingly — even their standing in their professional organizations. It has been suggested that True might deserve sympathy for having been the first curator at a major collecting museum to institute stronger acquisition policies — first in 1987, then in 1995 — that started to move in the right direction. But this ignores the existence of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property, which put museums on notice about these issues. The United States implemented this treaty in 1982. Yet public and private collections, including the Getty under True, continued to grow with looted antiquities. There is simply no excuse for these activities, and Marion True deserves little sympathy for her role in them. She is no innocent scapegoat, nor is she a hero for calling attention to a problem she was helping to create.

In the end, Marion True has become only the most obvious symptom of an illness that has afflicted the art world more generally. For the problems extend beyond American institutions to Europe, Japan, the Middle East, and Australia, and they involve artworks from places other than the classical Mediterranean, such as India, Thailand, West Africa, and the Americas. Yet to my knowledge, no museum official at any level — including True — has been fired from his or her job or been officially reprimanded for acquiring illicit objects. What Marion True’s return to the public eye ought to do is spur governments and art-world organizations to finally get serious about identifying and punishing those who participate in the trade of looted antiquities.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Geoff Edgers as Geoff Edger. This has been fixed.

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