Getty art trial resumes in Italy

A prominent United States museum curator appeared in court in Rome on Wednesday in a trial designed to assert Italy’s ownership of a large part of the J Paul Getty antiquities collection, and sound a warning to museums elsewhere which may have acquired looted Italian art.

Marion True, the Getty’s former antiquities curator, is accused of knowingly acquiring antiquities stolen in Italy. Co-defendant Robert Hecht, a prominent art dealer in his eighties, did not appear in court.

The court mainly discussed procedural issues when it resumed after a four-month recess on Wednesday morning, and was expected to adjourn later to a date in December.

Both deny wrongdoing in the case, which emerged out of an investigation into the activities of former gallery owner Giacomo Medici, who is currently appealing a 10-year jail sentence and $10-million fine, handed down by a Rome court last year.

The trial is being watched closely by the international art world, where many reputable museums like the Getty fear the provenance of their collections will be put under similar intensive scrutiny.

Italy’s Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione suggested to journalists last week that the trial would send out a clear signal of Italy’s determination to recover lost art works.

“What belongs to the Italian people must return to the Italian people,” he said.

Prosecutors say traffickers used Medici’s Swiss art warehouses to store artifacts, including priceless examples from the Greek, Etruscan and Roman periods, looted from Italian archaeological sites. They say a paper trail leads to the Getty.

Nearly 3 000 pieces have been confiscated by the police, as well as thousands of photographs of vases and amphorae still in the ground, indicating they were looted directly from sites.

Prosecutors in Rome believe this could be just the tip of the iceberg.

The Getty, in public statements, has defended True, even though she resigned from her post last month over allegedly breaking Getty rules in setting up a personal property deal in Greece.

In a show of good faith, and in a bid to settle a forfeiture order issued in the US at Italy’s request, the Getty museum recently returned three out of 42 items sought by Italy.

The Getty has insisted it had never knowingly bought illegally uncovered artefacts and has stood by True in the case, though she resigned last month.

However, the Los Angeles Times reported last month that museum lawyers had determined that 82 items, including more than half the 104 masterpieces in its antiquities collection, had been bought from dealers accused of selling looted artefacts.

The trial is being seen as an important test-case for the art world, particularly as Italian prosecutors have signalled their intention to legally challenge museums worldwide over the means through which they acquired many of their artworks.

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