Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities

  • By Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 375 pp.

A riveting investigation of the Getty’s acquisition practices sheds light on illegal activities in the world of high culture.

Ominous clangs echo from the side of a fishing vessel as a crew of Italian fishermen, thick forearms tense, struggle to lift a net out of the water sloshing below. Murmurs, exhortations.  What is it?  Che?  It’s not fish. Is it a body? A dead man? Madonna mia!  No, no! It’s a statue, encased in a husk of barnacles. The men pry off a chunk. GOLD! Well, bronze, as it turns out, but still shiny and worth more than fish. There are excited discussions, decisions and, finally, a pact. Somebody knows someone who knows how to unload this thing. This statue is an opportunity, not an artifact.

This scene could be the beginning of another Jason Bourne or James Bond film installment, but it is in fact the symbolic centerpiece of an entirely different sort of intrigue, an intrigue that Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino painstakingly uncovered at J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The fruits of their work, Chasing Aphrodite, tell the cautionary tale of a museum ― a bright, young, ambitious institution ― trying to climb the ranks to cultural relevance in a world where worth is determined by collections and pedigree. The Getty Museum found out that relevance can sometimes be bought.

Chasing Aphrodite began as an incendiary series of articles published in the Los Angles Times that earned the authors a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2006. Their discoveries helped provoke international interest in the ongoing problem of looted antiquities. Coincidentally, publication of the book is marked by yet another official request by the Italian government to return the storied Getty Bronze, the very piece whose discovery the book’s opening scene dramatizes.

In order to tie the series of stories into a coherent narrative about the illegal antiquities trade, and the Getty Museum’s particular participation in this sordid underworld, the authors spent three additional years researching the administrative underpinnings of the apparent corruption, fleshing out the story behind the articles that publicized particular scandals. The notes the authors provide in the back of the book are exhaustive, and it is evident that they understand the intricacies and convoluted nature of the antiquities black market, museum administration and the Italian legal system: no simple feat. Not only do they provide a timeline of the Getty’s dysfunction from its founding to recent managerial upheavals, but they also introduce along the way the cast of characters who populate the chain of laundering that an institution like the Getty needs to procure some of the items it has obtained.

The research that Felch and Frammolino did to create this indictment of the Getty, and many other museums by association, is thorough, and their notes often elucidate the scenes of dramatic re-enactment that shape the book. Amid the drama of the events described emerges an outline of the corruption and arrogance that has pervaded the museum world for a very long time. The authors set forth the pathology that permitted curator after curator to hide behind a veil of denial while procuring very evidently “hot” items. And the question of culpability is clear from the communications and investigations they describe. But the authors seem to rest on this research and offer little nuance in their analysis of this widely accepted culture.

In addition, their investigative zeal takes them down ancillary paths so that they risk losing sight of their targets. The dysfunction of the Getty Trust, the parent of the museum, and its management eclipses that of the Antiquities department. The authors seem conflicted in their drive to cast Marion True, the antiquities curator at the Getty and a principle figure in the book, as a singular corrupt official. True knowingly participated in buying looted antiquities, but at the same time she has begun to trumpet the cause of protecting cultural heritage and setting new standards for American museums that are far stricter than any earlier policies. True is vilified throughout the book, but at the end when she has become a fallen pawn of the Getty, cast into the purgatory of the Italian legal system, Felch and Frammolino are more taciturn, less willing to scold ― a confusing shift after the pitchforks and torches they brandished.

That places such as the Getty were inspired by the many great cultural institutions in England and France is a testament to an enduring appreciation for the sublime and beautiful. That they also inherited the attendant cultural imperialism is sadly evident as well. Perhaps the most widely known conflict concerns that of the Elgin Marbles, large pieces of sculpture removed from the Parthenon by the English Earl Elgin and brought to England. His actions have been both lamented and vehemently defended ever since and remain a wedge in the relationship between Greece and England. The inherently false view that the moral wrong of buying a looted antiquity is balanced or even outweighed by the idea that it will be preserved lovingly, appreciated by scholars and saved from the corruption or ineptitude of its host country, has been and still is being presented by curators the world over.

Felch and Frammolino narrate the story of the illegal antiquities trade through the lens of the Getty’s undoing. As such, Chasing Aphrodite reads like a crime drama unfolding, filled with incriminating notes, paper trails and recollections, scandal and subterfuge. Yet there is much ambiguity that Felch and Frammolino leave unexplored. It seems a disservice to reduce this rich tale to a movie of the week.

Alexis Akre is a writer and bookseller in Brooklyn.

comments powered by Disqus