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Italy, Getty end rift

The museum's pledge to return 40 objects is confirmed as civil charges are dropped against former curator.

September 26, 2007|Jason Felch and Livia Borghese | Special to The Times

ROME -- Italy will drop its civil charges against former J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True, now on trial here for allegedly trafficking in looted art, Italian authorities announced Tuesday.

The announcement came after a subdued ceremony in Rome's Ministry of Culture, where Getty officials confirmed their August pledge to return 40 of the 46 ancient artworks that Italy has claimed were looted and smuggled out of the country before being purchased by the Getty.

Maurizio Fiorilli, a state lawyer representing Italy, said he would announce his intent to withdraw from the trial when the proceedings resume today. But the more serious criminal trial against True, 58, will continue.

Details of the settlement were not released publicly, but a person familiar with its terms said it followed the broad outlines of earlier agreements reached between Italy and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In exchange for returning the contested objects, Italy has offered the Getty broad cultural cooperation and the loan of about 50 comparable antiquities to display in the Getty Villa near Malibu.

In returning the objects, the Getty did not admit to knowing the objects had been looted, and Italy did not forgo the option of raising additional claims for antiquities in the future.

The returns effectively render moot the civil aspect of True's trial, in which Italy sought damages for the loss of its cultural property. True faces criminal charges along with American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht, 88.

"The withdrawal significantly lowers True's exposure," said Luis Li, a Getty legal advisor. The Getty is paying for True's defense.

Paolo Ferri, the Italian criminal prosecutor in the case, said he hoped the agreement would accelerate the pace of the trial, which began in July 2005 and has hearings about once a month, when not delayed by strikes or holidays.

Ferri said the criminal trial, the first in which an American curator has been charged by a foreign county, was intended to be both punitive and preventive. "The preventive aspect was to say to museums: Please stop this buying in an illicit fashion, and please return the objects," Ferri said in an interview Tuesday. "This has now been achieved, and museums that are obliged to surrender objects won't be in the same trouble."

He expressed confidence in winning a guilty verdict in the conspiracy case but called its significance "virtual."

"True is an American citizen and will be able to evade my penal sanctions by going to the U.S. With Hecht, he is too old to have a real prison term," he said.

"For me, the trial has been won," he concluded.

True has maintained her innocence throughout the proceedings. Harry Stang, True's attorney, said, "Dr. True, together with her defense team, will continue to pursue all steps necessary to establish her innocence of the charges. Her defense team will address further matters when and if appropriate."

The 40 objects being returned include the Getty Villa's signature statue of Aphrodite, 10 other masterpieces and more than two dozen other important vases and sculptures, purchased for more than $40 million over 30 years.

Four of those objects have already been taken down from display and will arrive in Italy next week. An additional 35 will be taken off display and returned in the coming months.

The Aphrodite will not return to Italy until 2010.

The agreement reached in August ended what had become a de facto cultural embargo between the two parties, museum officials said.

Several Getty requests to borrow Italian art for upcoming exhibitions in Los Angeles had been delayed or ignored by Italian authorities during the months of heated negotiations over the artifacts.

"Italian curators and museum directors were not issuing their approvals or denials until they saw what happened," said David Bomford, associate director for collections at the Getty.

Soon after the August agreement, several Italian museums approved pending loan requests, in one case reversing an earlier denial.

The Getty had asked for eight drawings and seven paintings from Italy for an exhibition on Taddeo and Federico Zuccaro, which will open Oct. 2 at the Getty Center in Brentwood. The Italian works complement the museum's collection of 20 Zuccaro drawings acquired in 1999. When it received no response to its request, Getty curators planned for the exhibition without them. Notice of their approval came just two weeks ago, and the exhibition was redesigned to accommodate the additional works.

Similarly, a Getty request for an important sculpture of Costanza Bonarelli had been denied but was reconsidered after the August agreement, Bomford said. The exhibition of work by Gian Lorenzo Bernini will open next year, featuring the rare female bust from Italy.

"We could have survived without them," said Bomford of the loans, "but those exhibitions are immeasurably improved and enhanced by Italy."

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jason.felch@latimes.com

Times staff writer Felch reported from Los Angeles and correspondent Borghese reported from Rome.

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