Marion True, a once-prominent antiquities curator at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, has resurfaced in an interview with the Washington Post after her being charged by the Italian government with helping the Getty acquire looted artifacts a decade ago. She has written a yet-to-be-published memoir about her experience, which she generally describes as being unfairly singled out and outcast for engaging in (albeit totally unethical) industry standard acquisition practices.
Admittedly, it's difficult to muster sympathy for True.
The reporters staked her out. The investigators said she conspired with crooked dealers. And her museum colleagues seemed content to watch her disappear, as if one of the world’s most powerful, respected and sought-after art historians deserved to be the only American curator brought to trial.
Ten years ago, Marion True, then curator of antiquities for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles — the wealthiest museum in the world — was formally accused by the Italian government of taking part in a stolen-art ring. Within months, she would lose her job, her career and leave the country. Once a curator so coveted she turned down a plum offer from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, True vanished so completely that one former boss, Barry Munitz, admitted in an interview this summer that he had no idea “where she is or what she’s doing.”
J. Michael Padgett, the Princeton University Museum of Art’s curator of ancient art, spoke of her in the past tense when approached recently at a dinner toasting, of all people, the late dealer, Robert Hecht, who was brought to trial with True.
“She was a symbol,” he said. “And she died for others.”
Except that Marion True is very much alive and now, for the first time in years, has agreed to talk about her professional exile. What’s more, True has roughed out several hundred pages of a potential memoir, a draft of which she shared with The Washington Post.
A decade after her downfall, True knows that she was singled out, with Hecht, by the Italians to strike fear in American museums. The strategy worked. The Getty and others, fearing prosecution, returned hundreds of objects worth millions of dollars.
True was never found guilty — the trial ended in 2010 without a judgment — and the curator maintains her innocence. But today, for the first time, she is talking openly about the way she and her museum-world colleagues operated. Yes, she did recommend the Getty acquire works she knew had to have been looted. That statement, though, comes with a qualifier:
If she found out where a work had been dug up from, she pushed for its return. In contrast, many of her colleagues did little, if anything, to research a work’s source. None of them were put on trial.
The pursuit of True was aided by raids of dealers and a massive leak of internal Getty documents to a pair of Los Angeles Times reporters. That paper trail linked looted sites in Italy to the museum’s Malibu galleries.
Now-retired Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri, reached recently, admits that he never imagined True going to jail. “She was on trial for one reason,” he said. “To show an example of what Italy could do.”
In her unpublished memoir, True charts her rise from working-class Newburyport, Mass., into the mysterious, swashbuckling universe of ancient art and, finally, into an Italian courtroom. She offers a rare glimpse into the often too-cozy-for-comfort relationships among museums, dealers and collectors. She describes the absurdity of being targeted. Because even True’s detractors knew about her efforts to create collecting standards in a profession that, for decades, operated with the ethical compass of a junk bond trader on 1980s Wall Street.
True’s trial, covered with great fanfare at its start, fizzled out quietly.
“I understand why the Italians did what they did,” True, 66, said in one of a series of interviews in Newburyport, where she maintains a modest, third-floor walkup so she can visit her 91-year-old mother. “It was very clever, and it was very mean, but at least I understand why. What I never understood is why American museums did what they did. And my colleagues and my bosses never, ever stood up for me. They acted as if I had done all this stuff on my own, which would have been impossible to do. They just vanished.”
Former Getty director John Walsh, reached this summer, said that he gave a deposition explaining why True, as a curator, should not have been held responsible for Getty acquisitions. Those purchases were made by the museum’s administrators and board. But his private defense offered little solace to True. As she notes, the Getty did little to support her publicly.
“I don’t think anybody stuck their neck out,” said Max Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art. “Her indictment was a shock to the system. Everybody was watching with concern for their own fate. I don’t think it was the finest hour of the profession.”
It is late one morning, and True has heard about the book-release party, at a Turkish restaurant in New York, to celebrate the publication of Hecht’s memoir. He was the brash, legendary figure who fashioned himself a “buccaneer” during decades of selling ancient art to museums, even when he had reason to believe the works had been looted.
She is trying to process the idea that the man charged with conspiring with her would now be celebrated over red wine, kebabs and calamari by the aging circle of curators she once called colleagues. “Even Bob Hecht comes out of it with his book published,” True said. In person, True is warm, funny and capable of chatting about everything from the Beatles to the proper way to grow a peony. She lives mainly in France now with her French husband, a retired architecture scholar. Her tone shifts when talk turns to the Getty. Unprintable words fly. Tears well up.
The Getty Villa, with its sprawling gardens, outdoor theater and galleries overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, was designed to re-create the feel of a 1st-century Roman home. The renovation of the Villa was her life’s work, an eight-year, $275 million project opened to the public in 2006. It is the main reason True turned down the Met when it offered her its top antiquities job. True literally wrote the book on the Villa, a hardcover available for $39.95 in the museum gift shop. Her forced resignation in October 2005 came in the midst of the antiquities case but was technically for an ethical breach she admits she regrets, borrowing money (at 8.5 percent interest) for a second home from prominent museum donors Larry and Barbara Fleischman. “I was a very happy person,” she says, looking down and beginning to cry.
“I think I was good at what I did. I loved what I did. But when you know that you can’t do it anymore, then it’s over.”