Los Angeles A plot fit for a Hollywood thriller has been unfolding at the venerable J. Paul Getty Museum, a gleaming hilltop refuge that Italian authorities claim houses pilfered art.
A decade after leading efforts against the illegal trade of artifacts, the museum's recently departed antiquities curator faces trial next month in Rome over allegations that she knowingly received dozens of stolen items.
The internationally renowned Getty finds itself deflecting a barrage of questions about how it amassed its world-class collection of Roman, Greek and Etruscan works. And the art world is left to wonder whether the museum's current dilemma will refocus attention on how art is acquired.
"We don't want to become associated with Enron-type institutions," said Selma Holo, director of the International Museum Institute at the University of Southern California. "We're all looking to our own gardens and making sure we've cultivated them properly."
Getty officials have denied any wrongdoing. The museum recently described the return of three objects, including an Etruscan bronze candelabrum Italian authorities allege was stolen from a private collection, as "demonstrating the Getty's interest in a productive relationship."
That hasn't slowed Italian prosecutors, who hope their trial of former antiquities curator Marion True will deter art trafficking.
"The Getty case is so important that it will represent a milestone and completely change relations within the art world," Anna Maria Reggiani, director of archaeology at the Italian Culture Ministry, said.
That attitude is a break with the past. With foreign authorities less aggressive than now, museums competing to build their collections might have been more willing to look the other way regarding the origins of high-dollar antiquities.
"The Getty was not acting alone in this way," said Steven Thomas, an art law expert and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Many museums were doing this."
Greece has long sought the return of statues and fragments known as the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, taken in the 19th century from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire; Egypt wants to reclaim iconic artifacts including the Rosetta Stone from London and a Nefertiti bust from Berlin.
The opening of the $1 billion Getty museum complex nearly eight years ago was heralded as one of the most important art events in recent U.S. history.
Funded by a multibillion-dollar endowment from the oil magnate, the museum for years had been housed at the intimate Getty Villa in Malibu. The new complex - a maze of marble buildings overlooking Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean - let Getty trustees develop a campus featuring an eclectic mix of furniture, illuminated manuscripts and 17th-century Dutch paintings.
Boosters hoped it would silence skeptics who regarded Los Angeles as a cultural wasteland.
But while the museum has generated international acclaim, it also has attracted an international investigation.
In May, a judge in Rome ordered True tried on charges that she allegedly helped the museum acquire, between 1986 and the late 1990s, about 40 archaeological treasures stolen from private collections or dug up illicitly. They include a stone sculpture representing Aphrodite and a marble statue of Tyche, the goddess of fortune; both are more than 2,000 years old.
Italian prosecutors charged True with criminal association and receiving stolen goods. The case follows a 10-year investigation centering on Italian art dealer Giacomo Medici, who was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison for conspiracy in international trafficking of antiquities. He remains free pending appeal.
Along with True, Robert E. Hecht Jr., a Paris-based American art dealer, has been charged. Their trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 16.