Friday Jan 21

Chasing-Aphrodite-Felch-Jason Chasing Aphrodite: the Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum
By Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
375 pages
Houghton Mifflin, 2011, ISBN: 015101015
Reviewed by Laura Blasingham
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Editor’s note: This fascinating book is about the moral turpitude of collectors and museums when it comes to the provenance and rightful ownership of antiquities and art works. It’s a written by two investigative journalists who grab your interest while they present the shocking facts. I think it’s a book that should interest people from many walks of life, as it touches on art and commerce, a place where all of our find ourselves in one way or another.
                                                                         Stephanie Brown, Book Review Editor
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Desperate for the Next Old Thing: Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
 
Destruction and pillage are terms not normally associated with museums.  Aren’t these institutions somehow otherworldly, filled as they are with hushed exhibition spaces and removed from the sordidness of everyday life? Prepare to be surprised in Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, an exposé of museum life written in the best investigative journalistic style.
 
The museum in question is the richest in the world: the J. Paul Getty—a bigger than life, Technicolor sort of place—a museum that could only have been created in Los Angeles.
As befits such a place, the people surrounding it are varied and eccentrically vivid. Nobody gets upstaged here!
 
There is the antiquities curator who meets thieves in a Swiss bank vault.  Then a whole coterie of art dealers with connections to the Italian underworld and cavernous warehouses full of loot.  Throw in the affluent American collectors courted by museum boards as well as Hollywood glitterati donating art at inflated values for tax purposes.  Add disgruntled museum staffers who smuggle documents to investigative reporters.  Add the archeologists, underdog heroes, who nocturnally chase pillagers from digs and get their tires slashed in retaliation.  And, of course, the art itself—glorious statues, golden funerary wreaths, alabaster griffins.  The whole thing ends in grand legal court action on a global scale complete with melodramatic Italian prosecutors, pay offs, and back room deals. It can’t get more exciting!
 
But how could such a moral morass similar to the greatest and worst soap operas and suspense thrillers exist within a respected upholder of culture and civic education?
 
This dichotomy is the focus of Chasing Aphrodite.  The authors take the roof off the Getty so to speak and we peer down with them as they track a scandal’s progress from the early days of the museum’s founding to the bitter and humiliating public exposure in this decade.
 
The scandal that damaged the reputations of the Getty and so many American museums is the looting of archaeological sites for world treasure.  Chasing Aphrodite’s cover depicts an exquisitely crafted statue of griffins attacking a doe.  Not chosen as cover art for beauty alone, the ferocious griffins are metaphors for museums, dealers, and collectors, while the hapless doe stands in for archaeology- and antiquities-rich countries such as Italy, Greece, and Egypt.
 
Besides being a metaphor, the statue itself is an example of the how museums used looted artifacts to enrich their collections.  Looted from an Italian site in the mid-1970’s, it was sold to the Getty in 1985.  In telling photographs, the statue is first seen being transported by looters as it rests on Italian newspapers.  Next it stands on glorious display at the Getty.  Then, finally, and most dramatically, we see a picture of one of the dealers (later convicted of criminal behavior) standing next to the exhibited griffins as he stares at them proudly, hands on hip, enjoying the moment.
 
Before purchasing, the Getty researched the history of this piece in all its sordid detail. The results were ignored by officials; the statue was just too stunning, too dramatic, too important an acquisition to let a little ethics get in the way.
 
The story of the griffins is an example of the mound of paperwork and photo evidence documenting the Getty’s knowledge of the illicit history of many of its pieces.  The Getty is not alone in these practices.  Acquiring shady antiquities is a dirty little secret held by many museums in America.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s that UNESCO created an international treaty making it illegal to import illicitly excavated artifacts.  Previously, most museums turned a blind eye to the origins of a piece.  Italy, Greece, and other economically struggling but culturally rich countries were wide open to this sort of exploitation.  Even after the UNESCO treaty, art dealers merely forge documentation and museums, desperate for the next old thing, believe the unbelievable.
 
The Getty’s great wealth enabled it to acquire artifacts like few museums in the world.  Formed as a tax shelter in 1953 by its oil billionaire namesake, the museum had an endowment at Getty’s death in 1976 of $700 million. By 1981, the endowment had grown to such an extent that the museum was required to spend $50 million a year. And spend it did on a glittering new museum building in Los Angeles and the transformation of the original Malibu location into an Italian villa.  Educational programs, conservation efforts, and research grants proliferated.  Not least of all was the purchase of items for its ever expanding collection.
 
Helping the Getty obtain these items was a curator who was not the first or the last of those covered in the book but ultimately the most fascinating.  Her name: Marion True.  At first, her name speaks well for her character.  Dr. True went against many of her colleagues to speak up and defend the archaeologists who adamantly opposed the compromising of historical sites for acquisition.  She organized the first American symposium to discuss issues of looting and collecting.  And, in a strange twist, she testified on behalf of the nation of Cyprus in their ultimately successful lawsuit against an illicit art dealer.
 
And yet, consistently throughout her career, Marion True bought and encouraged the buying of illegally excavated materials.   She had an eye for beauty and was responsible for the acquisition of some of the Getty’s most magnificent pieces, including the Fleischman Collection, a privately owned treasure trove of classical art. Almost all these acquisitions were proven illegal finds.
 
Hers is a sad story of ambition and hypocrisy.  Ambition to turn a rich man’s collection into a world famous research and artistic center.  Hypocrisy to the moral viewpoints she espoused while demonstrating the opposite through her actions.  She was surrounded by enablers.  The Getty’s culture was steeped in the encouragement of this type of acquisition.  The majority of her predecessors, her supervisors, and her colleagues engaged in exactly the same activities.  And yet Marion True was different, in that she had once experienced a warring in her soul over the issue that few others exhibited.
 
Sadly, in the end, Marion True was betrayed through the rejection and disengaging by the very museum for which she sold her conscience and reputation.   Times are changing.  In this last decade, the long unequal war between archaeologists and museum officials has begun to shift in the archaeologists’ favor.  Source countries and museums are dialoging with the result that acquisition through looting is being replaced by long term loans and traveling exhibits.  Suddenly, museums can no longer be associated with any hint of impropriety and are disentangling, white washing, and returning a few token finds to their origin countries.
 
Remember those words, destruction and pillage?  Those are the library subject headings for Chasing Aphrodite. Fortunately, museums in the U.S. have retreated from their former practices.  Looting is decreasing in many places; foreign governments have begun funding more aggressive protection programs.  While the authors paint a gloomy picture of new moneyed areas in Asia, Russia, and the Middle East following America’s earlier example, strides have been made.  What a noble goal for the Getty and for museums around the world to become once again those otherworldly places where the best that civilization has created is collected in a manner worthy of their beauty.
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LauraBlasingham Laura Blasingham is a librarian and librarian manager with the OC Public Libraries system.