Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Marion True Trial in Rome: some lessons

The news that the long-running Rome case against Marion True has been dropped was expected. The Italian authorities have demonstrated that they are unwilling to turn a blind eye to the acquisition of recently-surfaced antiquities that appear to have been removed from archaeological contexts in Italy. The parading of a curator from such a high profile museum must have sent an icy blast through many a museum with displays of antiquities. Torkom Demirjian of Ariadne Galleries in New York is likely to be right to interpret the case: "Don’t deal with Italian cultural patrimony or we’ll create a headache for you". And it is clear that raids on the Geneva Freeport provided the evidence to lay the trail from Italy to North America via Switzerland.

It would be inappropriate to ask how much True knew about such networks of suppliers and dealers. But it is worth considering if she ever considered the source (or collecting histories) of each of the items as they were offered to her. Why were these high profile objects previously unknown? Did she really believe that they had been residing in some private villa beside Lake Geneva? Did she ever wonder why a Greek pot could be reconstructed from a sequence of fragments ("orphans") that all seemed to surface over a few years?

The object by object consideration of each of the 35 pieces challenged by the Italian authorities would have provided an opportunity to lay bare the networks behind the trade in such items. And it needs to be stressed that the J. Paul Getty Museum had acted responsibly and released the full collecting histories; these have received a detailed discussion (details).

The case has also revealed information about the Barbara and Laurence Fleischman collection that was acquired by the Getty.

Has every North American museum co-operated with the Italian authorities? What about the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with its Attic red-figured krater? And what will happen over the Princeton University Art Museum? And then there are the European collections (such as Copenhagen) and the Miho Museum in Japan.

Yet has there been a change in the attitude of museum curators in North America towards acquisitions? The AAMD has adapted its position over acquiring archaeological material (in spite of criticisms from James Cuno who is now perceived as being "out of touch"). And with the return of over 120 antiquities from North America to Italy, Paolo Ferri is right to say: "Italy showed that it wanted to break with past practices".

The True case will serve as a reminder to any museum curator who is tempted to buy that one object that will make their gallery world famous.

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