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Prosecutors outline conspiracy in Getty trial

Name New York gallery as key link in stolen artifacts trafficking ring
/ Source: The Associated Press

Italian prosecutors on Wednesday named a New York art gallery as a key link in what they say was a vast conspiracy to market stolen artifacts that allegedly involved a former J. Paul Getty museum curator on trial here.

Prosecutor Paolo Ferri presented documents and testimony he said proved Manhattan’s Merrin Gallery served as a conduit for artifacts smuggled out of Italy by a Swiss-based dealer, then resold to various U.S. museums, including the Getty in Los Angeles.

Calls seeking comment from the gallery were not returned Wednesday.

Former Getty antiquities curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht are accused of receiving and conspiring to deal in illegally acquired antiquities. The defendants, both Americans, deny wrongdoing.

The case against True involves about 35 artifacts acquired by the museum between 1986 and the late 1990s — including bronze Etruscan pieces, frescoes and painted Greek vessels.

The Rome trial is part of a wider effort by Italian authorities to crack down on antiquities trafficking and recover artifacts they contend were illegally stolen or exported from Italy and sold to European and U.S. museums.

Prosecution witness Giuseppe Putrino, a police officer who participated in the investigation into Gianfranco Becchina, a Basel, Switzerland-based art dealer, presented documents seized in Becchina’s offices.

Putrino said the documents discussed Merrin’s purchases of ancient artifacts, including a sarcophagus and a marble head of the 2nd century Roman emperor Commodus. The statue and the sarcophagus were later bought by the Getty, he said.

“Of all these objects there is no trace, no documents of their export from Italy,” Putrino said, indicating he believed the objects were illegally smuggled out of the country.

Ferri, the prosecutor said, the Becchina-Merrin relationship was part of a broader conspiracy to traffic in artifacts that involved the Americans on trial.

Lawyers for True and Hecht said that Wednesday’s testimony in the Rome court was a broad look on the world of art dealers and had no bearing on their clients.

Efforts by authorities to fight art trafficking go well beyond the Rome court. In February, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return 21 looted artifacts to Italy in exchange for loans of other treasures.

Greece, meanwhile, is demanding the return of four ancient artifacts from the Getty it claims were looted. In a series of raids earlier this month, police found nearly 300 unregistered antiquities in an Athens house and a villa on a remote Aegean island.