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The puzzle of Marion True

Many colleagues praise her integrity, yet few can explain away the Getty curator's legal and ethical tangles.

October 31, 2005|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Not long after the Italian government accused Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True of knowingly trafficking in looted artifacts, a group of her friends and colleagues teamed up to vouch for her character.

In days, more than three dozen museum directors and top curators added their names to a letter that went to Getty Trust President Barry Munitz in late June. "We want to attest," they wrote, "to the absolute integrity and judgment of our esteemed colleague Marion True."

Now True is jobless, her Santa Monica condo is up for sale, and as her former Getty colleagues apply finishing touches to the project that was to be the capstone of her career, she and her husband are said to be living in France.

Not only is True's professional reputation as a reformer in peril, her judgment is under debate in museums around the world. Many of those who signed that June 28 letter would rather not talk about it now. And several of True's friends say they still don't understand how such a brilliant, upright woman could land in such hot water.

First, the Italian court case. Then, in early October, the retirement-inspiring revelation that True got help from a professional contact -- an art dealer -- in securing a 1995 personal loan for a vacation home in Greece. Then came reports that the Greeks too are negotiating with the Getty for the return of possibly ill-gotten artifacts.

"She is a person who has devoted most of her life to doing the right thing -- more so than 99% of the people I know," said Karen Manchester, curator of antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago, who spent 11 years working at True's side. "I'm at a complete loss to understand what's going on there."

True isn't speaking publicly. But friends and colleagues paint a portrait of a woman of ferocious intellect and daunting memory, a vase maven who reads Latin, Greek and Italian and bestows names from mythology on her cats. This Marion True knits expertly, took up the lute as an adult, and always seemed the very picture of prudence.

Now True's calendar reads like the script for a Greek drama: First there's her 57th birthday (on Saturday), then the resumption of her Italian court case (on Nov. 16), and then construction crews in Malibu will wrap up work at the $275-million Getty Villa, a satellite museum, amphitheater and center for classical study that True spent 15 years planning.

No matter how her case goes from here, said David Rodes, director emeritus of the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts and a 20-year friend of True, "this is a cultural tragedy for Los Angeles."

True, born in Tahlequah, Okla., was educated in Massachusetts and New York and got her bachelor's degree at New York University. Until recently, she and her husband, Patrick de Maisonneuve, an architecture professor from France, lived in a Santa Monica condo. (That condo just went up for sale, priced at $949,000.)

In 1986, she earned a Harvard PhD and won the job of Getty antiquities curator, one of the most coveted, and thorny, positions in the world of art.

"She had breadth," said John Walsh, former director of the Getty Museum who promoted True to antiquities curator. "She knew about a lot of things, especially for her age.... But the most important thing was that she was a collector. She really has a discerning eye and a quick judgment." Walsh said she also had "the wisdom and uprightness" to make her way in a field "not only full of dubious material but full of untruthfulness and deceit of every kind."

The antiquities curator's job is a strange hybrid, requiring old-fashioned scholarship, teaching skills and street savvy. Over the last 15 years, the field has gotten even more perilous as Mediterranean countries have strengthened their enforcement of laws banning artifacts export and museums have been forced to tighten acquisition policies. Until this year, True was widely viewed as a leading reformer, friendlier than most curators with Italian authorities and in general more open about what she had and what she knew.

But since Italian officials announced their trial plans in May, True's case has loomed as a daunting precedent for any museum holding artifacts obtained from foreign lands by obscure means. Prosecutors say 42 Getty items can be traced to looted Italian archeological sites, and they accuse True of criminal conspiracy to receive stolen goods and illicit receipt of archeological items. True and her former employers say the museum has never knowingly bought a looted item. But beyond that, True and the Getty no longer speak in one voice.

That's because Getty Trust President Munitz accepted her resignation Oct. 1, as The Times prepared to print an article about a loan True received in 1995 to buy a Greek vacation home. In seeking financing for the home on the island of Paros, interviews and documents indicate, True discussed the subject with one of the museum's main suppliers of ancient art, who introduced her to a Greek lawyer, who arranged the loan.

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