The J. Paul Getty Trust, which has said it was fully cooperating with an Italian investigation into the antiquities trade, did not disclose a series of letters and photographs showing that its chief antiquities curator maintained close relationships with dealers suspected of selling looted art, according to documents and interviews.
The Getty's antiquities curator, Marion True, is facing trial in Rome this fall on charges that she conspired to traffic in ancient artifacts stolen from Italian ruins and smuggled out of the country. Italian authorities have identified 42 objects — including some of the most prized antiquities in the Getty's collection — as stolen and have demanded their return. The authorities are also investigating other American museums.
The Getty and True maintain her innocence.
According to a confidential memo written in 2001 by the Getty's criminal defense lawyer to Chief Executive Barry Munitz, an internal review of Getty files had turned up a handful of letters from the suspect dealers and True, as well as Polaroid photographs of artifacts.
The letters indicated that the dealers were offering objects "which appear to be from illegal excavations," and the Polaroids showed the artifacts "in an unrestored state" that suggested they were recently looted, according to the memo from attorney Richard Martin, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
Martin advised Munitz that the Getty was "not presently under an obligation to provide the attached correspondence or any photographs," because Italian authorities had not specifically asked for them.
"It is obvious we should not offer to produce what has not been asked for," Martin wrote.
He concluded: "We should point out that, while these letters are troublesome, none of them amounts to proof of Dr. True's knowledge that a particular item was illegally excavated or demonstrates her intent to join the conspiracy."
Reached Thursday by telephone, Paolo Ferri, the Italian prosecutor in the True case, said he had not seen the correspondence or photos, despite repeatedly asking Martin for all material in Getty files relating to True's relationship with the dealers.
"It is very surprising to me that they didn't give me these very important documents," Ferri said, adding that, in a face-to-face meeting and subsequent telephone conversations, Martin personally guaranteed the Getty's "full cooperation."
"When Dick Martin said he wanted to cooperate, I thanked him," said Ferri, adding that he now believes the trust acted in bad faith.
Because Ferri's requests were not made formally through the U.S. attorney's office, it is unlikely that the Getty's failure to produce the documents violated any law. The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles declined to comment.
The Getty, in a statement, said The Times' article is based on "privileged documents that have been stolen from the Getty."
Trust officials, True and Martin's law firm, Heller Ehrman LLP, "have acted appropriately at all times in their dealings with the Italian prosecutor. Any suggestion that the Getty, Dr. True or their lawyers improperly withheld any documents is untrue," the statement said.
The trust added that the Italian prosecutor never issued a subpoena for all documents and had agreed instead to "voluntary discussions with the Getty to obtain copies of specified documents."
The trust provided all documents requested by the prosecutor, the statement said, adding: "All other documents in the Getty's possession that could in any way be relevant to the Italian investigation have been retained and preserved by the Getty."
In a letter to The Times' lawyers, Martin said Thursday that the Getty and True were "prepared to seek a court order" to prevent publication of the contents of his memo, which he described as "a confidential and privileged memorandum prepared by our firm."
Publication of the memo would interfere with True's "right to unfettered representation by counsel in an ongoing criminal matter," he wrote.
Getty board Chairman John Biggs, former chairman and chief executive of TIAA-CREF, the investment fund for education professionals, said he had viewed relevant documents from the internal review.
"I've seen them myself, and I think there's no merit to what you're trying to write a story about," Biggs said. "It's all part of a systematic effort that the L.A. Times has undertaken to write stories about the Getty."