ROME. — In a move that seemed to gratify prosecutors, lawyers for a former curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles who is on trial here asked on Wednesday that the court admit as evidence a letter in which the curator railed against her former employer.
In the Dec. 18 letter to three Getty officials, the former curator, Marion True, accused the Getty’s trust of having left her to “carry the burden” of the institution’s collecting practices, even though her superiors at the museum and the trust had “approved all of the acquisitions made during my tenure.”
Her letter — addressed to Deborah Marrow, then the Getty Trust’s acting chief executive; Michael Brand, the museum’s director; and Ron Hartwig, the trust’s spokesman — also faulted the museum for a “lack of courage and integrity.”
J. Paul Getty Trust
Italy says it should be the rightful owner of “Victorious Youth,” an ancient life-size bronze that the Getty acquired in 1977.
Ms. True is on trial with Robert Hecht, an American dealer, on charges of conspiring to export looted antiquities from Italy. She recently became a focus of a parallel investigation in Greece.
But the prosecutor leading Italy’s investigation, Paolo Ferri, said the letter presented in Ms. True’s defense worked against her by suggesting that she had knowingly taken part in acquisitions of illicit artifacts. “She accuses the Getty of having been aware of all her decisions,” he said, adding that she did not shun dubious purchases. “She didn’t pop out of nowhere,” he said, but was continuing an established practice.
Ms. True served as chief antiquities curator from 1986 to 2005. Some pieces acquired during her tenure are at issue in bitter negotiations between the Getty and the Italian Culture Ministry, which is demanding the return of 46 ancient objects it says were looted. The talks halted late last year after Italy refused to cede ground on the number of antiquities it wants back, including a bronze statue of an athlete. In breaking off talks, the Getty adamantly rebutted Italy’s claim to the bronze, but said it would unilaterally return 26 objects.
A translated version of the letter was read aloud at the end of a daylong colorful hearing in which the court also heard testimony from Pietro Casasanta, a self-professed tomb robber who accused the Italian government of hypocrisy in its crusade to stem the illegal flow of antiquities from Italian soil to public and private museums and collectors.
“For 50 years we were experts in archaeology, and then from one day to the next, we became common thieves,” said Mr. Casasanta, referring to his fellow clandestine excavators. Although he knew he was breaking the law when he scoured the countryside for ancient treasures in recent decades, he continued, he also knew that he could get away with it.
“No one bothered us, starting with the police,” he said, noting that he used to dig with gigantic machinery that would have been hard to miss. “It was unprotected for 50 years; no wonder so much material was unearthed.”
Mr. Casasanta’s testimony offered a broad picture of antiquities dealing until around 1995, when the police forced him to close down his shop in Rome after investigating his transactions.
Describing himself as a “loose cannon,” Mr. Casasanta told the court how he sought to present pieces he sold as legally excavated and then inflated their value by buying them back at auction. He also described an intricate web of relationships between tomb robbers and dealers in Italy and abroad, typically in Switzerland and Britain.
But mostly he defended his profession, claiming that through his nighttime forays, thousands of works of art were saved from potential destruction by future urban development. “If it weren’t for tomb robbers, people wouldn’t be seeing vases in museums,” he said. “I deserve to be nominated as a lifetime senator for the cultural pleasure I have allowed people to have.”
Repeatedly Mr. Casasanta emphasized that tomb robbers and dealers had worked in relative tranquillity, even while knowing that their digs were technically illegal. “What you consider law, I considered otherwise,” he said.
The letter read at the hearing seemed to offer a parallel to Mr. Casasanta’s testimony in suggesting that blame in the wide-ranging antiquities controversy had not been adequately shared. Ms. True wrote that her Getty superiors “were all fully aware of the risks involved in buying antiquities” and still had approved her decisions.
She said the Getty Trust’s failure to throw its weight behind her had allowed prosecutors in Rome and Greece to “place squarely on my shoulders the blame for all American collecting institutions and the illicit market.”
Francesco Isolabella, one of her lawyers, said, “Marion True is being used as an excuse to criminalize all American museums.”
He pointed out that several works that Italy wants the Getty to return were bought by Ms. True’s predecessor, Jiri Frel, who worked from 1973 to 1986 on amassing the museum’s collection of Greek and Roman treasures.
Ms. True should not be used “as a passe-partout to get at the Getty,” he said.
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO, The New York Times