A Rome judge declared an end Wednesday to the trial of a former J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities curator accused of knowingly acquiring looted art from Italy, citing the expiration of the statute of limitations, defense lawyers said.
The 6-year-old case against Marion True was followed with concern by museums worldwide and involved about 35 artifacts acquired by the Los Angeles museum between 1986 and the late 1990s _ including bronze Etruscan pieces, frescoes and painted Greek vessels.
"I spoke to Mrs. True on her cell phone and she was glad that finally after 10 years the case is closed," said one of her lawyers, Francesco Isolabella. "The alleged crime is now wiped off the books."
Alessandro Vannucci, a defense attorney for the other defendant in the case, American art dealer Robert Hecht, said the ruling by Judge Gustavo Barbalinardo was expected because the legal time limit ran out in July. Wednesday's hearing in a Rome courthouse was the first session in the trial since a summer recess.
Vannucci said the trial will go forward for Hecht since there is a nine-year statute of limitations against him because of a slightly more serious charge.
The Getty said in a statement it is pleased the judge has ended what the museum called "a long and difficult ordeal."
Both defendants denied wrongdoing, and True's supporters had depicted her as a champion of scrupulous documenting of the provenance of antiquity pieces in the Getty collection.
True resigned from her post at the Getty in 2005 after museum officials determined she had violated policy by failing to report details of her purchase of a vacation home on a Greek island.
The Rome trial began in 2004 under an international spotlight drawing attention to Italy's aggressive campaign to win back ancient Roman, Greek and Etruscan vases, bowls, statues and other artifacts prosecutors contended were looted from the country to add prestige to collections in countries less steeped in millennia-old cultural glories.
Rome's courthouse was closed for the evening, and prosecutors in the case could not immediately be reached for comment.
As Italian prosecutors pursued the case, centering on charges of association in illicit trafficking in antiquities, the aggressive strategy was keenly studied by other U.S. museums, which, one after the other, started returning star pieces in their collections to Italy.
Among the treasures coming back to Italy was the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Euphronios Krater, considered one of the most excellent ancient Greek vases in existence.
True had denied the charges she had conspired to illicitly traffic in ancient artifacts from Italy.
Vannucci said trial continues against 91-year-old Hecht because of his allegedly more serious role as head of the dealing carried a nine-year-long statute of limitations, expiring next summer.
He predicted Hecht's trial would also end before any verdict, since the court is still hearing prosecution witnesses, and time would run out before the defense could present its case.
Italian trials often drag on for years, since hearings in courtrooms with crowded dockets are held sometimes weeks or even months apart, and generally have a long summer recess.
Defendants are not required to appear in court during their trials, and True rarely came.
Italy's retrieve-its-treasures campaign was set in motion after a 1995 police raid on a Swiss warehouse of an Italian art dealer found a trove of artifacts and photos of antiquities, many of them still covered with dirt from being hastily excavated by illegal antiquities hunters in Italy.
The dealer, Giacomo Medici, was convicted by a Rome court of conspiracy to traffic in antiquities in 2004 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Last year, an appeals court upheld the conviction but reduced his sentence to eight years. He remains free pending an appeal to Italy's highest court for criminal matters.
Authorities traced photos found in the raid to pieces held in museums worldwide, and contended that thousands of Roman, Greek and Etruscan antiquities were stolen or clandestinely excavated from Italian soil in the last decades, smuggled out of Italy and sold by dealers such as Medici.
The foundations of the case against True and Hecht were largely laid down from the Medici probe. Italy's campaign to recover the artifacts prompted top museums, including the Getty, to return dozens of pieces in return from long term loans of prestigious pieces in Italian museums. Greece, heartened by Italy's bold efforts, started demanding return of antiquities from foreign museums.
Associated Press reporter Sue Manning in Los Angeles contributed to this report.