Friday, January 11, 2008

Marion True: Victim or Villain?

This question was sparked by a New Yorker profile of the recent legal troubles of Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum and current co-defendant on charges of conspiring to buy stolen properties in Italy and Greece. The profile was sympathetic to her, basically taking the view that naivete and following outmoded practices were her worst crimes. But it made me remember the book I'd purchased over the summer, The Medici Conspiracy by Peter Watson and Cecelia Todeschini. I wondered if I'd view her as sympathetically after reading that, so I dusted it off and dug in. About three-quarters of the way through, I re-read the New Yorker profile. I'm still not sure what to think.

To anyone who cares about history, The Medici Conspiracy will be absolutely shocking and not a little depressing. Before reading this book, I thought of tomb robbing as Indiana Jones stuff, stuff that happened mostly in movies, and certainly not in real life anymore. This book definitely proved me wrong. In fact, despite the arrests of many of the players in the worldwide conspiracy to smuggle antiquities out of Italy, restore them, launder them and sell them to high-profile museums and collectors, it's probably happening right now, as I'm typing this.

Furthermore, the looted objects discussed in this book are not small-time. Frescoes from villas, vases by the best potters and painters of ancient times, even a solid-gold funeral wreath: all of these things and more were unearthed by the tombarolos (grave robbers) Giacomo Medici employed. Medici was the kingpin in this conspiracy: his vast network of tombarolos in Italy collected his objects for him (in return for which many were paid an actual salary) and he held them in a warehouse in an unregulated area of Switzerland known as the Freeport. He worked with a network of restorers and antiquities dealers, who helped him sell these antiquities to well-known private collectors and museums. That way, these collectors could maintain their veneer of respectability and still get first-rate objects.

The Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were the two institutions that figured most prominently in the book, but the book will make you suspicious of any antiquity you see anywhere. Furthermore, the book's authors make you care. The last chapter is devoted to the damage done to the archaeological record by this scam. Often, the conspirators would lie about the origin of an object if their illegal dig had been exposed or if an object could fetch more money if it was from a different region. Since we're talking about nearly one million objects, there's no way the conspirators might even agree to tell the truth as part of a plea bargain -- they probably wouldn't be able to. Divorced from their context, the objects have less to say. In a sense, we are all the victims of this scam.

I was reading this book at work yesterday when the president of the board asked me about it. I tried to boil down the conspiracy for him, and he asked the obvious question: why wasn't Marion True more suspicious? Why did everyone settle for the pat explanation that these high-quality objects just magically materialized on the market? There are two simple answers to that question. A sympathetic one would say that Marion True, and her counterparts, were just trusting. Marion True had excellent personal relationships with many of the collectors and dealers in this story, although the New Yorker profile had quotes from her friends showing that she always maintained a certain distance for ethical reasons. A cynical explanation would say that avarice and ambition overtook her and her counterparts: everyone knew exactly what they were doing and didn't care as long as they didn't get caught.

To me, neither one is enough of an explanation. I still don't really understand it. Marion True spent years getting her PhD with the goal of devoting her life to the study of antiquities. Why would she turn around and harm her own discipline? No amount of money or acclaim could ever convince me to do that, and I'm not nearly as influential as she was. Furthermore, it sounds like she had it all. At points, I was quite jealous of her success. Well-regarded in her field, in command of a large budget and a group of underlings, with the opportunity to publish, to curate high-end exhibits, to direct an entire gallery renovation, to travel abroad several times a year -- it's a dream come true to those like me, at the bottom of the profession, whose curatorial duties include answering the phone and spreading salt in the parking lot. Yet, she fucked it all up. Why, I wonder? Was it worth it?

Or did she honestly believe that she was doing nothing wrong? Even the decidedly unsympathetic authors of The Medici Conspiracy note that she was hardly the only curator following these buying practices, just the only one to get in trouble for it. The New Yorker article notes that one problematic practice, buying fragments of vases in an attempt to reconsitute them over time, dates back to the nineteenth century (Medici would exploit this by breaking a vase found whole and releasing the fragments over time, or by using them to sweeten other deals.) Over the years, she advocated for ethics reform, instituted new acquisition policies at the Getty, and generally showed her awareness of the problem. Could she have really been that blind to her involvement in it? Or did she just have a real set of brass balls?

I still don't know. Because of the way their system is set up, her trial in Italy is proceeding slowly, and even at the conclusion of it, it still may be difficult to form a definitive opinion. But in an odd sense, Marion True inspired me. Like I said above, she had it all and she fucked it up. Maybe I, too, could have it all and NOT fuck it up? While I doubt I'll get the Greek villa on my current salary, I am going to shoot for being more than a glorified tour guide and events planner, and shoot for it as hard as I can.