A Fine Mess in Malibu; Charges of Smuggling Overshadow the Refurbished Getty Villa

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Byline: Cathleen Mcguigan (With Barbie Nadeau, Eric Pape and Jennifer Ordonez)

The old Getty villa in Malibu always had a wacky Hollywood vibe. A replica of a grand Roman house that was buried when Mount Vesuvius blew in A.D. 79, it looked so fabulously fake in the southern California sunshine that you half-expected some B-movie actor to stroll out in a toga and start orating. And it was a kind of stage set, a backdrop built by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty in 1974 to house his eclectic collection of old-master paintings, French furniture and classical antiquities. The old man died two years later, and when the superrich Getty Museum moved to the modern Richard Meier-designed complex in Brentwood in 1997, the Malibu villa was closed for a massive makeover. Eight years and $275 million later, it's finally reopening this week as a splendid new home--and free public museum--for the Getty's great collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. A perfect ending--just roll the credits.

Except that this story turns out to have a dark side: charges of smuggling and tomb raiding. While Getty officials are popping champagne corks at the opening, the person most deeply involved in re-vamping the villa--along with the architectural firm of Machado and Silvetti--is standing trial in Rome. Marion True, the museum's former curator of antiquities, faces up to 10 years in prison for illegally trading in classical artifacts as she built up the Getty's collection. While both True and the museum maintain that they didn't knowingly buy tainted art--and the Getty foots her legal bills--Italian prosecutors have launched a yearlong trial, with plans to call 200 witnesses. "It is a tragedy that this is happening as the villa is opening," says a former colleague of True's. "She may have made some bad decisions, but her presence at the Getty for more than 20 years was that of a serious scholar."

At the heart of the case is a 1939 law in Italy that forbids the export of antiquities. For decades, it was poorly enforced as shady middlemen continued to buy from Italy's web of tombaroli (tomb raiders), and ancient statues, vases and other artifacts made their way to elegant dealers in Paris, London or New York. Museums and wealthy collectors often looked the other way if a great piece came on the market with a shaky pedigree. …