Category Archives: Media

Looters of the Gods: The Getty’s Golden Wreath is Featured in Documentary on Museums and the Illicit Antiquities Trade

The Funerary Wreath

As we were prowling the alleys of Rome on Monday discussing our plans for WikiLoot, a prize-winning documentary film was airing on Italian national television about the role of American museums in the illicit antiquities trade.

“Looters of the Gods” is a 2010 DocArt production by Italian director Adolfo Conti that focuses on the Getty Museum and its acquisition of a gold funerary wreath in 1993. As we revealed in our 2005 articles in the LA Times, Marion True was first offered the golden wreath in a Swiss bank vault by two men claiming to represent Swiss collectors.  She concluded the men were impostors and had done “tremendous damage to a great object.” “I hope you will find a possible buyer for it,” True wrote to an intermediary in the deal, “but I am afraid that in our case it is something that is too dangerous for us to be involved with.”

Four months later, True and her bosses at the Getty changed their minds and agreed to acquire the wreath for $1.15 million, sending their payment to a bank account in the name of the impostors, who investigators later determined to be Greek smugglers. The funerary wreath had been recently looted from the royal Macedonian tombs of Northern Greece, possible from a relative of Alexander the Great.

Nikolas Zirganos with members of the Greek art sqaud, celebrating the return of the golden funerary wreath.

The documentary film follows the investigation of our friend Nikolas Zirganos, the Greek investigative reporter who we teamed up with to crack the case of the funerary wreath. His intrepid reporting pieced together the criminal investigation by Greek and German authorities that ultimately led to True’s criminal indictment by Greece. The time limit on the charges expired before she could go to trial, but in December 2006, the Getty agreed to return the wreath to Greece. The film also features Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri and his investigation of the Getty and other American museums in the illicit antiquities trade.

Here’s a preview of “Looters of the Gods”:

Introducing WikiLoot: Your Chance to Fight the Illicit Antiquities Trade

[UPDATE: Our WikiLoot proposal has sparked a great conversation about the project. Thanks for all the comments submitted below and on the application, which you can find here. Collaboration is at the heart of this project, so we've created an open group in Facebook where people can continue to exchange ideas about the potential (and pitfalls) of WikiLoot. Join the conversation here.]

Today we’re pleased to announce — and to seek your help with — an exciting new project we’ve been tinkering with in private for some time. We’re calling it WikiLoot.

The idea behind WikiLoot is simple:

1. Create an open source web platform, or wiki, for the publication and analysis of a unique archive of primary source records and photographs documenting the illicit trade in looted antiquities.

2. Use social media and other tools to engage a broad network of contributors — experts, journalists, researchers, dilettantes and curious citizens — to collaborate in the analysis of that material.

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

The inspiration for WikiLoot is the vast amount of documentation seized by European investigators over the past two decades during investigations of the illicit trade in Classical antiquities smuggled (primarily) out of Greece and Italy. The business records, journals, correspondence and photographs seized from looters and middlemen during those investigations comprise a unique record of the black market.

Much of that documentation remains tangled in legal cases that are likely to end inconclusively, like that of former Getty antiquities curator Marion True and dealer Robert Hecht. Despite remarkable investigative work by authorities in Italy and Greece, only the trial of Italian dealer Giacomo Medici reached a verdict.

This Polaroid seized from the warehouse of dealer Giacomo Medici shows the Getty Museum's Statue of Apollo shortly after it was looted from a tomb in Southern Italy.

WikiLoot will make these records and photographs publicly available on the web and will enlist collaborators around the world to tag and analyze them. As with Wikipedia, participants will be given credit for their contributions. Ultimately, we hope to create the world’s most authoritative dataset of a black market whose size and reach is still poorly understood. (Estimates of the illicit antiquities trade range from $200 million a year to $10 billion dollars a year.)

The project is still embryonic — we’re consulting with open-source techies on the best way to structure the wiki; with lawyers about the legal issues involved; and with social media experts on on how to engage the broader public in the effort. We’re also considering concerns about the effect this release of information will have on existing collections and the still-thriving market for antiquities with unclear ownership histories.

Today we’re taking an important step toward launching WikiLoot with our application for a Knight Foundation News Challenge Grant. And we need your help.

Challenge Grants reward innovative uses of new media to solve problems and inform the public. The theme of this round of grants is “networks.” Here’s how the folks at Knight explain what they’re looking for: “The Internet, and the mini-computers in our pockets, enable us to connect with one another, friends and strangers, in new ways. Witness the roles of networks in the formation, coverage and discussion of recent events such as the rise of the Tea Party, flash mobs, the Arab Spring, last summer’s UK riots and the Occupy movement. We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools – that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon.”

For WikiLoot, our network is YOU — the growing number of interconnected people around the world concerned about the illicit antiquities trade and looking to do something about it. We’re relying on your input to shape the project and, once launched, contribute to it with your knowledge.

To start, we need your support for our Challenge Grant proposal. One of the key things considered by judges is public engagement with the proposed idea. The best way to show this is for you to “like” our proposal or add a comment on how you think it could help — or be improved. (You may need to sign in with a Tumblr or other social media account.)

Show your support by liking or commenting on our WikiLoot proposal, which is posted on Knight’s Tumblr page here

We’re also eager to tap your expertise — or curiosity — during this development stage of WikiLoot. What features would help engage a broad audience in the analysis of this material? What concerns do you have about its release? Who else should we be reaching out to or partnering with? What can you contribute?

To that end, we’ll be making WikiLoot a new tab at the top of ChasingAprhodite.com. That’s where you can submit public comments, suggestions or rants. We’ll update it with new information as things develop. If you’d like to contact us privately, do so via email: chasingaphrodite@gmail.com

Thanks for your interest and support. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on WikiLoot!

James Cuno on Timothy Potts and the Getty’s New “Appetite for Risk”

Getty CEO James Cuno discussed his “appetite for risk,” his decision to hire Timothy Potts as the Getty’s next museum director and his vision for the museum in an interview on Warren Olney’s Which Way LA program on KCRW.

Chasing Aphrodite’s Jason Felch and CultureGrrl Lee Rosenbaum were also guests on the program. The interview came on the same day that Cuno announced a shakeup at the Getty museum that consolidated administrative powers under the Trust  and led to the dismissal of two senior staff members.

Listen to the full program here:

Listen to Chasing Aphrodite on Deadline LA: The Getty Museum and the Black Market in Looted Art

Last week, Jason spent an hour talking with Barbara Osborn and Howard Blume, co-hosts of DEADLINE LA, KPFK’s roving eye on the media.

KPFK's Deadline LA

Olson and Blume are notoriously tough customers who boast of “pummeling” the news media for their coverage of the day’s top stories. But their praise for Chasing Aphrodite was effusive. Blume called it “fascinating” and “a page-turner.” Osborn said she couldn’t put the book down.

You can listen to both half-hour segments here. Part I focuses on the path of looted antiquities from tombs to American museums like the Getty.

Deadline LA: Part I

Part II focuses on the colorful history of the J. Paul Getty Museum:

Deadline LA Part II

Fall Book Tour wraps up after 14 events in 15 days. VIDEO: Chasing Aphrodite at UPenn.

We’ve just wrapped up our fall book tour — 14 events in about 15 days.

Thanks to everyone who came out to learn about museums and the illicit antiquities trade. And our sincere gratitude to our hosts at Rutgers, Princeton, UPenn Museum, UPenn Law School, Villanova Law School, NYU, The National Arts Club, The Harvard Club of NYC, Cardozo Law School, AIA, SAFE, The Walters Museum of Art, Chapman University and Central Michigan University.

Keep an eye on our events page for more events coming soon. If you’re interested in hosting an event near you, please contact us at ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com.

For those who missed us, here’s a video of our presentation at the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where we were introduced by Dr. Richard Leventhal:

Video: The (Slightly Whitewashed) History of the Getty Villa

While we’re off on vacation for two weeks, we thought you’d enjoy this (somewhat whitewashed*) history of the Getty Villa. Produced by the Getty for promotional purposes, it features Stephen Garrett, the Getty’s first museum director, as well as former antiquities curator Marion True, who oversaw the transformation of the original museum into the Getty Villa as we know it today. Sadly, many of the galleries were designed around objects — such as the statue of Aphrodite seen in a diagram dominating the Gods and Goddesses Gallery at minute 7:00 — are no longer part of the Getty’s collection.

*Whitewashed: Missing from the glossy promo video are many of the less flattering facts about the Getty’s history — J. Paul Getty started the museum as a tax dodge, not because of some philanthropic instinct. He left many of his most important works, like the Landsdowne Herakles, outside in the elements for years. The world’s richest museum charges for $15 for parking, despite Getty’s explicit wish that his museum be free of charge for admission and parking. Worst of all: the governing metaphor of the site’s $275 million redesign is that of an archaeological excavation. Unmentioned is the irony that most of the objects on display were illegally ripped from just such an archaeological site. While it pretends to celebrate archaeology, the Villa is in many ways an affront to it.

An hour of Chasing Aphrodite on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny

Jason was interviewed Tuesday on KQED’s Forum, the award-winning public affairs program in San Francisco.

During the hour, Jason and host Michael Krasny touched on a variety of topics, including the fall of Marion True, the fate of so-called “orphans,” the Elgin marbles and Western imperialism. Callers had some interesting questions, including several people wondering what to do with looted objects they have come across.

You can listen to and download the program here.

Tuesday in San Francisco: The Commonwealth Club and KQED’s Forum

 

 

 

This Tuesday, Jason will be in San Francisco speaking about American museums and the illicit antiquities trade at The Commonwealth Club, “the nation’s oldest and largest public affairs forum.”

He’ll be in conversation with Anne W. Smith, chair of the Club’s Art Forum and a long-time art professional in San Francisco. She has served as a trustee for the Book Club of California, the Film Arts Foundation, California Lawyers for the Arts and numerous other cultural groups.

“Personally, I found CHASING APHRODITE an extraordinarily detailed, sometimes scary and ultimately fascinating narrative that should command the attention of curators, collectors, policy makers, arts administrators, art historians and museum goers,” Smith wrote in the invitation to the event.

The program starts at 6pm at the Club’s downtown venue on 595 Market Street. Tickets can be purchased at the door, through the reservation line (415) 597- 6705, or in advance here.

Also, tune in to KQED Tuesday morning at 10am to hear Jason live on Michael Krasny’s Forum.

If you can’t make it, both programs will be available as podcasts. We’ll post a link when they become available.

 

PBS NewsHour: Museums and the Risky Business of Looted Antiquities

Jeffrey Brown of the PBS program NewsHour interviews Ralph about Chasing Aphrodite.

SAFE interview with co-author Ralph Frammolino

SAFE, the New York nonprofit focused on protecting cultural heritage, has posted its interview with Ralph Frammolino, who gives the behind the scene story of the Getty antiquities scandal and how Chasing Aphrodite came to be.

Listen to it here:   SAFE podcast