Raiders of the Lost Art; Can Rome Use the Trial of a High-Profile Museum Curator to Help End Trafficking in Stolen Antiquities?

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Byline: Eric Pape and Barbie Nadeau

For decades, tombaroli --tomb raiders--have pillaged Italy's archeological sites for artifacts. Despite a 1939 law prohibiting the export of antiquities pulled from Italian soil, they--aided by ingenious traffickers and see-no-evil curators--have helped stock the world's major museums with Etruscan vases, Hellenistic silver sets and Roman statues. It's proved an extremely difficult trade to stop--but now Italian authorities think they see their chance. The trial of former J. Paul Getty Museum curator Marion True for allegedly trafficking in stolen artifacts is set to reconvene in Rome this week. And authorities are mounting a huge spectacle--including 200 witnesses and regular leaks by the prosecution about evidence--to guarantee it has maximum impact. "Museums have to stop plundering our cultural heritage," says Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the leading prosecutor in the case. "It harms not only Italy, but mankind."

With True facing 10 years in prison and a massive fine if convicted, the specter of the trial is already bringing some lost antiquities home. Italian Minister of Culture Rocco Buttiglione said last month that the Getty Museum "spontaneously" returned objects in November, a decade after the current investigation began. (The former curator has publicly denied any wrongdoing.) Last month, just before True's trial was scheduled to resume, the Getty sent back a large antique vase, a bronze Etruscan candelabrum and an ancient Greek funerary stone in the interest of "settling" litigation and "demonstrating the Getty's interest in a productive relationship with Italy," the museum said in a statement. Buttiglione thanked the Getty, then noted that 39 other works obtained by True during her almost 20-year tenure remain at the museum perched on a hilltop overlooking Los Angeles. "We are firm on this point: what belongs to the Italian people must be returned to the Italian people," he said.

True is charged with conspiracy and receiving 42 stolen artifacts. She is stand-ing trial with 86-year-old Swiss-American art dealer Robert Hecht Jr., who has been charged with conspiracy, receiving stolen goods and illicit export of Italian artifacts; Hecht denies all charges. …