Raiders of the Lost Art

For decades, tombaroli --tomb raiders--have pillaged Italy's archeological sites for artifacts. Despite a 1939 law prohibiting the export of antiquities pulled from Italian soil, they--aided by ingenious traffickers and see-no-evil curators--have helped stock the world's major museums with Etruscan vases, Hellenistic silver sets and Roman statues. It's proved an extremely difficult trade to stop--but now Italian authorities think they see their chance. The trial of former J. Paul Getty Museum curator Marion True for allegedly trafficking in stolen artifacts is set to reconvene in Rome this week. And authorities are mounting a huge spectacle--including 200 witnesses and regular leaks by the prosecution about evidence--to guarantee it has maximum impact. "Museums have to stop plundering our cultural heritage," says Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the leading prosecutor in the case. "It harms not only Italy, but mankind."

With True facing 10 years in prison and a massive fine if convicted, the specter of the trial is already bringing some lost antiquities home. Italian Minister of Culture Rocco Buttiglione said last month that the Getty Museum "spontaneously" returned objects in November, a decade after the current investigation began. (The former curator has publicly denied any wrongdoing.) Last month, just before True's trial was scheduled to resume, the Getty sent back a large antique vase, a bronze Etruscan candelabrum and an ancient Greek funerary stone in the interest of "settling" litigation and "demonstrating the Getty's interest in a productive relationship with Italy," the museum said in a statement. Buttiglione thanked the Getty, then noted that 39 other works obtained by True during her almost 20-year tenure remain at the museum perched on a hilltop overlooking Los Angeles. "We are firm on this point: what belongs to the Italian people must be returned to the Italian people," he said.

True is charged with conspiracy and receiving 42 stolen artifacts. She is stand-ing trial with 86-year-old Swiss-American art dealer Robert Hecht Jr., who has been charged with conspiracy, receiving stolen goods and illicit export of Italian artifacts; Hecht denies all charges. Ominously for True, one of the judges in the case has already convicted Roman art trader Giacomo Medici for trafficking an artifact that True allegedly bought through Hecht for the Getty. (Medici, who is appealing the conviction, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a 10 million euro fine.) The prosecution claims it is further bolstered by an unpublished tell-all memoir investigators found in Hecht's Paris apartment. The book contains a veritable how-to guide on antiquity trafficking, including details of Hecht's exchanges with True and other major museum curators.

Timing their actions to coincide with the trial, Italian authorities are summoning other U.S. curators to Rome to discuss the provenance of their Italian art, and threatening to prosecute those who don't show up. Philippe de Montebello, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 28 years, came late last month to discuss the possible return of pieces including a valuable Euphronios bowl from the fifth century B.C., a wine vat, several Pugliese vases and some silver Sicilian cutlery.

Other countries are poised to follow Italy's lead. Greece is demanding that the Getty return four objects they claim were illegally taken from that country, including a marble torso of a virgin, an inscribed tombstone and a gold funerary wreath worth millions that was obtained by True. The fourth is an ancient votive relief purchased by J. Paul Getty himself in 1955. Prosecutors in Turkey say they are preparing to launch criminal charges against the Boston Museum of Fine Arts over the top half of a statue of Hercules; the bottom half is still in Turkey.

In the end, the debate over stolen antiquities is driven less by practicality than by principle. Italy doesn't exactly need the works from the Getty; its museums are already crammed full, and for every illegally trafficked piece of art there are dozens more acquiring dust in warehouses and storage bins. "It's an embarrassment of riches," says Col. Ferdinando Musella, chief of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Art. But the question remains: whose embarrassment, and whose riches?