Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum

by: Jason Felch (0)

In recent years, several of America’s leading art museums have voluntarily given up their finest pieces of classical art to the governments of Italy and Greece. The monetary value is estimated at over half a billion dollars. Why would they be moved to such unheard-of generosity? 

The answer lies at the Getty, one of the world’s richest and most troubled museums, and scandalous revelations that it had been buying looted antiquities for decades. Drawing on a trove of confidential museum records and frank interviews, Felch and Frammolino give us a fly-on-the-wall account of the inner workings of a world-class museum and tell the story of the Getty’s dealings in the illegal antiquities trade. The outlandish characters and bad behavior could come straight from the pages of a thriller—the wealthy recluse founder, the cagey Italian art investigator, the playboy curator, the narcissist CEO—but their chilling effects on the rest of the art world have been all too real, as the authors show in novelistic detail. 

Fast-paced and compelling,
Chasing Aphrodite exposes the layer of dirt beneath the polished façade of the museum business.

The Reviews

A really fascinating read about the world of looted art and how it ends up in the major American museums. While everyone knows the story of the Elgin Marbles and continued conversations about whether the British Museum should return them to Greece, the story of the Getty isn't as well known even though Marion True made worldwide news in the discussions around prosecuting her for her role in the museum's acquisitions.This book traces the story from the so-called Getty Bronze, which a collector wanted Getty himself to purchase to items that came to the museum from Maurice Tempelsman to items that were acquired through a tax donation scheme by Jiří Frel to the Greek/Sicilian sculpture found in Sicily that formed the book's namesake and beyond. This isn't just the story of the Getty, but rather the story of the issues surrounding American museums and their curators in the years after the 1970 UNESCO declaration. Philippe de Montebello, Thomas Hoving and other art world leaders faced the same dilemmas that Munitz and the others at the Getty did.Very readable, fascinating history. Only quibble is it sometimes jumped back and forth in time so it wasn't a sequential narrative.

I NEVER knew museums were into such skulduggery ! I always assumed that with their cultured airs they were cultured people of cultured tastes and impeccable standards.This book was an amazing education on how museums come by their valuable collections. This book centers on a particular scandal however, it is hard to imagine that this does not continue to some degree today.The looting of antiquities to fill the worlds' leading museums and the originating countries' fights to get the items back is a riveting read.Most museums required "incontrovertible " absolute proof of an item's being looted and sold through the black market before they would give it back to the requesting country. It was noted that this is tougher proof than is required for a murder trial ! Acquiring the treasured item....not so much proof needed. Giving it back.......more proof needed than to convict a murderer ! Amazing.It's a great read. Highly recommend it even if you're not a museum buff and familiar with all the antiquities being discussed.

I base my review on the text itself but the Kindle edition is a disgrace.This was a fascinating look into the issue surrounding the return of looted classical art work purchased by the Getty over the years. It is well written and develops a good chronological timeline as well as insight into the personalities involved that was not readily apparent if you read only the newspaper accounts. I would agree with most of the four- and five-star reviews here on Amazon.For Kindle customers I have this to add: this digital edition is a disgrace; I have notified Amazon. There are numerous editing errors, none of the photos are included, and there was no indication until I got to the end of the text that there were interesting and informative notes. In the "Notes" section there were two types of indicators for the notes, some linked back to the text and some did not. Some notes were preceded with this symbol "[>]" in front of the note, which links back to the text; others merely had what appears to be a page number in front of the note but the number did not link back to the text nor did the digital edition provide page numbers! Truly a disappointment.

The desire to acquire stuff must be one of those human traits right up there with the need for food, shelter and sex. This book seems well-researched work (if over-stuffed) on the backstory of acquisitions at the Getty in particular and museums in general. Some of the people featured in the book are indelibly linked, for good or for ill, to the museum's collection (and there is much controversy and more than one side to what's presented here). The lust to acquire by individuals and organizations fuels the looting of artifacts and the market for forgeries. On a recent docent-led tour at the Met I heard a docent remark "We have one of the best collection of Egyptian artifacts outside Egypt. And we don't have to give any of it back! " Point taken.

Wow - reads like a thriller and packed full of information. Not only does the author expose the ugly history of looted antiquities, but he skillfully sets forth the historical conundrum. If some of the antiquities had not been preserved in American and European museums they might not have survived war and destruction. But shouldn't countries have a right to their patrimony? Even now, archeological and cultural items are being destroyed in Iraq and Syria. The brilliance of "Chasing Aphrodite" is that it puts the issues in historical context and doesn't settle for an easy answer. He tells the story through the characters and highlights moral failures of the characters. Bravo for telling the story, weaving a thrilling tale, and focusing on the broader issues. Thank you! I will never visit a museum again without thinking of this book.

This book is a masterly arrangement of a huge mass of varied material into a readable book. The authors describe the once accepted view that it was better for antiques to be kept in atmosphere controlled galleries/museums rather than be allowed to deteriorate in the places where they were foud, or kept in the country where they were discovered.It describes how wealthy collectors vied with each other to acquire such pieces even where the authenticity was unproven or suspect and despite the damage that occured during looting. The sites were often found by accident and then dug up without care for the object. Furthermore the looters did not hesitate to break large items into smaller pieces in order to ship them more easily. A collateral was of course that the piece was worth a whole lot less than the complete statue, vase or whatever.This book is a real 'page turner' and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in collecting, museums or preserving the past.

Children often spend quite a bit of time inside of museums while growing up, whether they are going on walking tours, headphone tours, school tours or just meandering around the grounds and gardens with their parents on a Sunday. The education and inspiration that museums provide both children and adults is beyond measure. After reading this book, I would say that most High School age children should pick this up for classroom discussion as a proper way to wrap up that portion of their education and open consideration to museums in the real world. While this may be the detailed story of the Getty, it is actually the true story of most, if not all, museums in the modern age.I knew what I was getting into when I picked this book as I have followed the development of the Getty Museum through the years while living in Los Angeles. I visited the Getty Villa numerous times in the 90s, semi curious about their artifacts but intrigued by their paintings and then was present for opening weekend in 1997 high up in the hills overlooking the ocean. I recall being on the property the day Huell Howser came to film the gardens and watched him for a few moments from afar.No one would've ever guessed what was going on behind closed doors, except a few handful of people who circulated in that world exclusively. The level of secrecy that had to have been asked for, instilled and maintained throughout many years, even by lesser staff, who obviously knew quite a bit, is likely a story all by itself. While there have been numerous articles written about the Getty and their dealings, nothing reaches the magnitude of what is laid out bare in this book. If this was a book about somewhere more mainstream like Disneyland, the White House or some other supposedly sacred location, we would be hearing about this repeatedly, for weeks on the nightly news. The fact that it hasn't caused more outrage is telling. I cannot imagine this book went over well inside the Getty. I'm betting some folks may have even 'retired' just before this was published, just because.Coming away from Chasing Aphrodite, I had more questions than answers. I think anyone reading this and paying attention to the details would.Why did Marion True shift her position about buying looted antiquities almost overnight, even later vacillating several times about the idea of provenance whenever something shiny and new popped up on the Antiquities market, but was still running a dense PR campaign to push museums to become more ethical? I got the impression that this was actually a personal vendetta she was waging against someone outside of the Getty, possibly at another museum, but nothing concrete was stated.Also, one could argue, based upon the correspondences and other documents that were presented that Marion True may have never been held to later account had she just maintained the status quo and not engaged in trying to reform the Getty and by defacto, other museums as well. Coming away, it was clear that she wasn't honest about her reform and she merely used it to try to generate publicity for the Getty, trying to legitimize it, but nothing about what she did really rung true, no pun intended.I speculated about half way through that she was actually interested, honestly interested, in getting the Italian Government to loan priceless antiquities and allow them to travel to the Getty where she might try to wage a campaign to buy the priceless art for huge sums. That would be a huge achievement for anyone and create a go-to location for something magnificent and widely mainstream, like the Mona Lisa located at the Louvre. The book mentions this in a few places but doesn't really cook the meat off the bone for consumption at any time. You just see it float by in the text like a coffee cart on the veranda.I also find it difficult to believe that she held any angst over the discoveries of Jiri Frel and his 'catalogue building' that he engaged in. Maybe she was trying to create some kind of restitution on her own terms in the weird and strange world of antiquities collecting that operated on endless Getty Trust dollars? Maybe she was trying to right some wrongs with the mess that she had found herself inextricably entwined in against her will because of the early days with Frel? Maybe it was her lack of finances and the knowledge that she was cooked if she ever stopped playing along? These things are all hard to figure out.I think it's fair to say two things about Marion True. One, she's definitely not a villain. She's not drawn as one in these pages, but she's not written as someone you should admire. The truth is you probably should. The lady was a vanguard and a true architect of her own world and profession. She was definitely making back alley deals with shady European guys with the Getty checkbook and had very little pushback – and this image is what seems to be the one that some people have a problem with. The second thing that's obvious, is that if she were a man … yep … they would've likely made her the director of the entire Getty property for everything she did and the ability and connections she had control of. Let's just be real here.The most important fact however, regarding Marion True -- and it's impossible to discount and look away from -- was her dealings at the Getty over a career cultivating the Fleischman Collection. The book paints a decades long relationship, building, manipulating, quid-pro-quo, receipt based relationship between both True and Barbara and Larry Fleischman. The idea that she found certain items on the market, had them bought by the Fleischmans and then donated later to the Getty is damning. It's difficult for sure, but not impossible, to answer the questions directly pertaining to that collection and how that was ultimately manipulated. The Investigation and findings of Ferri and the Italians are sadly, and very likely, the most honest. Why? Because that's what the physical evidence bears out. Most people in the world, once having looked at all the facts would have a hard time walking away and NOT seeing Marion True as a Criminal Genius who concocted, crafted and pulled off a multi-million dollar scheme to load up the Getty with illegal artifacts on Getty endowment dollars. She's the Thomas Crown for the modern age. I don't know how else to say it.What gets me is the sheer amount of data these authors have been able to present. The personal data being the most eye-opening. Many times in the text, statements are made that are highly personal, highly self-deprecating with certain individuals and makes the reader wonder how they came about this data without speaking directly to these people and why they would admit such things about themselves. I would guess none of the people mentioned have challenged any of this, but it's like a weird irony from the book where one has to provide proof of absolute provenance and origin to make a claim in order to get anything back.I have read elsewhere that the authors were provided these documents through a massive internal leak, but this unfortunately being a messy thing by itself, doesn't absolve anyone. Lifting a rock and putting light on something doesn't also provide asylum if there was wrong doing – just because the rock was lifted. I also think the authors did a good job in explaining that the Getty Directors and top-tier staff were all warned early on but arrogantly pushed forward regardless, something that came back to bite them later.Most criminals, whether they be blue collar or white collar all know not to run your mouth endlessly about what your doing, what you did and who you did it with. This book seems to exist in a world where that just isn't the case, and while there were stacks upon stacks of Polaroids and police reports and even would-be Biographies unearthed in the investigations and research it is really hard to believe that these intrepid authors had complete access to everything in print that's alluded to. I'm not saying that I don't believe what's being presented, I do. Fully. This is boldly candid. I just have the feeling that there is much more here with the relationships people had in getting this information than meets the eye.For example, while it is true what is said about all the tombs that were raided from 1950 – 1990 by the tombaroli (grave robbers) and that vases, pottery, jewelry statues and other physical trinkets were of great interest, there wasn't a single mention about a single canvas in this book – except for the portrait of J. Paul Getty hanging in a boardroom that took place during True's first contact with the Italians. Shocking to think about that, isn't it? Art theft, especially since the trafficking of canvases is a multi-million-to-billion dollar business, especially with the Getty and in Los Angeles, but not a single mention of it? I found that odd.I will probably update this review in time as this information is quite a world-changer. Yes, I wrote a long review. Too bad. If you can read almost 400 pages, this review isn't going to hurt you. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Getty, Art, Museums, etc., on any level. This is a must read and should be shared in high schools, especially those interested in the arts.

Like many of the readers who reviewed this book, I could not put it down. The twists and turns of the careers of those involved in fulfilling the Getty foundation's charter to spend a large amount of money every year on the museum showed how tragedy has its beginnings in great hopes. But it also demonstrated how much the law evolves in actual cases, and how the moral high road is not always well-marked. The highly scrupulous drop out earlier from the art acquisitions game, while the risk takers can wind up having to admit they were involved in looting while being forced to cough up what they acquired, displayed and were once congratulated for snaring. Where there is a lot of money in the budget, there are those who are there to plunder it for personal gain and status, commingling the funds by upgrading their own lifestyle away from the museum. And there are those who accept what amounts to bribes for looking the other way.Whatever you have seen in politics or the boardrooms of Fortune 500 firms you will see at the Getty, but with far more glamor than in most of such stories of the fall from power. I guess that's because we are talking about beauty and its quest.There are overtones in the book of some universal principles of human behavior, discovered by the very people whose philosophy guides us to this day, while its art excites our admiration. When someone gives a warning, Cassandra-like, it pays to listen. When the tomb- and ruin-raiders trample through a part of once-Greek Sicily, in an area strewn with temples to the cult of the mother and daughter Demeter and Persephone, and they drag out a statue that might be Aphrodite or perhaps Demeter in search of her daughter, with her arm outstretched with what might have been a lantern, one has only to think of the myth to realize it involves an abduction. Persephone is taken by the god of the Underworld, the god of wealth, Pluto, and must dwell in Hades until negotiations allow her to come aboveground for part of the year.The absence of the stolen girl in the hands of the symbol of greed is a fitting metaphor for the fate of so many of these statues taken in nasty, brutish grabs. That an arrangement is later worked out for sharing such a beauty between one venue and another, is probably the eventual outcome of these stories of beautiful objects. With the passage of time, they are no longer simply the property of one nation, but something to be shared by the far-flung descendants, actual and spiritual, of the artisans of antiquity. While individual careers may have ended tragically at the beginning of this process, eventually some good can come of it. But the careful work of archaeology is eclipsed in this age by the lust for sensational museum exhibits which shows no sign of abating. Beauty and truth (which Keats saw on a Roman vase taken by the British) are unfortunately not so compatible as the poet believed. In LA beauty has trumped truth for a longer time than the Getty has existed - just look at any historical movie. So the slow careful work of the archaeologist can be rewarded only as tech support in today's museum world. Nevertheless, as the book demonstrates, the legitimacy of exhibits depends on the understanding of the context from which the art work comes, and if scholars boycott the Getty (as they have done), we'll all be the poorer for it.I am currently reading about the same events in an earlier, less concise book, the Medici Conspiracy. It was written around the time the events of this book were being covered in a series of investigative articles in the LA Times, by the authors of Chasing Aphrodite, who were nominated for the Pulitzer for their work. The MC, by a European-based team (Peter Watson, Cecilia Todeschini, and Nikolas Zirganos) is the more working class side of the story, in that it delves into the world of tomb-robbers and Italian art crime syndicates, as well as the police who track them. As such, the two books are complementary and I recommend both.

wonderful product.

To learn that the Getty Museums illegally bought antiquities which were stolen from archeological sights in Italy and Greece was a great shock and disappointment. I visited the original Getty Villa Museum and the n later the new Getty Museum high on the hill in Brentwood, outside of Los Angeles, and marveled at the ancient Greek and Roman art displays treasures. The authors did a great job in portraying the greed the Getty Museum's Boards, CEOS and art curators had in this travesty. Well worth the read, even if you are not into ancient art.

Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum
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