Tag Archives: archaeology

Letter from Fargo: Punk, Archaeology and the DIY Ethic of Cultural Heritage

Punk-Archaeology-HandbillWe recently heard about a gathering in Fargo, North Dakota that mixed beer, live punk music, spoken word, archaeology, the general public, and a do-it-yourself attitude for cultural heritage. Punk Archaeology?! We wanted to know more. Here’s a report from our correspondent Andrew Reinhard, the Director of Publications at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and a DIY punk scribe who makes music in his basement.

Nothing could be more punk rock than an archaeology unconference held at night in a bar in Fargo, North Dakota, in February. The brainchild of professor Bill Caraher of the University of North Dakota, graduate student Aaron Barth of North Dakota State University, and professor Kostis Kourelis of Franklin and Marshall College, the February 2nd event was organic as punk itself.

“The idea came up in conversation between myself and Kostis Kourelis, an archaeologist and architectural historian,” Caraher recalled. “We both observed that quite a few archaeologists had some interest in punk rock music. As we considered the causes and consequences of this coincidence, we got to think about how punk rock music – and the larger aesthetic and lifestyle associated with that musical form – influenced archaeology. We then began to document some of these musings in a blog Punk Archaeology and, from time to time, talked about turning the blog into something more.”

Aaron Barth stepped up to help, speaking with Caraher during fieldwork about Punk Archaeology, deciding to bring Punk Archaeology to reality by hosting a colloquium in Fargo. “We had a great group of scholars willing to contribute, an intriguing group of bands, and a fantastic venue for a meeting that interrogated the borders of the academy, popular culture, and loud, chaotic, and confused social critique,” Caraher said.

fargo1Punk Archaeology speakers gathered at the Hodo Lounge on the afternoon of Feb. 2nd to prepare for the evening and to discuss current projects. Caraher, Kourelis, and Richard Rothaus of Trefoil Cultural and Environmental will spend the weekend of Feb. 9-10 documenting the Man Camps of the Bakken Oil Fields with celebrated cultural photographer Kyle Cassidy. This visit continues a string of trips conducted to study life just outside of the boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. In April, Rothaus and I will also be making a 100-mile transect of the North Dakota Badlands wilderness to explore environmental and archaeological impact of oil exploration in the western half of the state.

The evening kicked off at the Sidestreet Grille and Pub promptly at 7:17 with a four-song set of my own punk songs about problems facing archaeology and cultural heritage. Barth assisted on drums.

  

On October 9th last year, Caraher emailed me to see if I’d create some music to play for the unconference. Three months and 17 songs later, the album was as finished as it was ever going to get, and I was ready to play it live. In the spirit of punk’s DIY attitude, I set some limits for myself: each song must 1) be about archaeology or cultural heritage; 2) be recorded at home in my basement by myself with instruments I already owned and without any help from anybody; 3) take three hours or less to write, record, and mix the lyrics and music for each tune; 4) have each part (guitars, drums, vocals) be recorded in three or fewer takes. These rules–musical austerity measures if you will–forced me to strip down to the basics while being as creative as possible in working with what I had. It also allowed me to consider major issues relating to Punk Archaeology ranging from repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, to austerity measures creating more art theft, to the destruction of cultural heritage by religious extremists, to the need for archaeologists to be better at sharing their data with each other and with the world.

ReinhardBarth

We played “Sand Diggers” about how war, oil exploration, and immigration enforcement often complicate proper excavation, “American Looters” criticizing popular treasure-hunting programming such as American Diggers, “Untenured” focusing on the perils of being an adjunct professor in the Humanities, and “Repatriate”, an aggressive call to museums to participate in the “Give-Back” movement. “Sand Diggers” resonated particularly deeply with the crowd, protesting the current drilling underway in the Baaken Oil Fields and the possible disturbance of archaeological sites on Killdeer Mountain and
elsewhere in North Dakota.

The spoken word part of the night followed, featuring “papers” by myself, Barth,Caraher, Kourelis, Rothaus, Kris Groberg (NDSU), Joshua Samuels (NDSU), and Peter Schultz (Concordia College). I spoke about discovering punk from a historical perspective, ultimately going native with the music and culture, exploring the punk family tree of bands and how that informed my world-view both personally and professionally. Groberg, an assistant professor of art history at North Dakota State University, recalled her earlier life as a “punk rock mom”, often sleeping bands like Fugazi in her basement when their tours brought them through Moorehead. Caraher instructed all speakers to keep their talks to “the length of a Minutemen song”, to hold the interest of the curious, drinking public, getting immediately to the point.

 

This collection of narratives was followed by a six-song set with a full-on punk band featuring Todd and Troy Reisenauer of Fargo’s Les Dirty Frenchmen on lead guitar and bass, Barth on drums, myself on vocals and rhythm guitar, and the University of North Dakota’s chair of the Music department, Michael Wittgraf on keyboard. We tore through two more originals, “Publish and Perish” which was transformed by the crowd into a ska rave-up, and “History” featuring a reading from Herodotus’ Histories. We then launched into a set of covers from the ‘60s with The Stooges’ “I Wanna be Your Dog”, heading in to The Humpers’ 1996 song “Losers Club”, a tribute to Ralph’s Corner Bar in Moorehead, Minnesota, a historic landmark in the Red River Valley punk scene that was
demolished in the late-‘00s. We finished off with “Born to Lose” by Johnny Thunders (1991, his final recording), and then destroyed the bar with the unabridged version of “My Way” by Sid Vicious to mark the anniversary of his death on Feb. 2, 1979.

Fargo punk legend June Panic followed us and played a mellow acoustic set. What’s archaeology without a nod to mythology and legend? As the final band of the night, Fargo’s What Kingswood Needs, set up, members of the audience took turns at the open mic to remember their times at Ralph’s Corner Bar. These oral histories were recorded, creating a time capsule of memory on one of the brightest and certainly most colorful eras in the Fargo-Moorehead region.

What Kingswood Needs finished the evening with two sets of original, modern punk songs, pulling from contemporary acts like Green Day, Blink 182, and Sum 41, closing the time-loop, bringing the Stooge’s proto-punk of 1969 all the way through to 2013. Thoughts on Punk Archaeology will be published post-haste by the University of North Dakota in the form of a ‘zine, the immortal DIY punk publication platform. Performances and talks were live-streamed during the event, and an edited version of these will be posted in the coming weeks. Caraher’s reflections on the event can be read on his New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World blog.

Sponsors included the North Dakota Humanities Council, the Cyprus Research Fund, Bismarck-based Laughing Sun Brewery, Tom Isern of the Center for Heritage Renewal at North Dakota State University as the Patron of Punk, as well as Rothaus who donated the gas in his truck, ferrying instruments to and from the venue, Fargo’s Sidestreet Grille and Pub.

 Join the Punk Archaeology conversation and be kept up to date on publications, audio,video, and future events on Facebook

You can follow Andrew Reinhard on Twitter at @adreinhard.


Robert E. Hecht Jr., leading antiquities dealer over five decades, dead at 92.

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

Robert E. Hecht Jr. 1919 - 2012

Bob Hecht died quietly at home in Paris at about noon on Wednesday, according to his wife Elizabeth. He was 92 years old. Here’s my obituary in the LA Times.

When Robert E. Hecht Jr. arrived at the loading platform of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the fall of 1972, he was carrying a large wooden box and was escorted by an armed guard.

Inside the box was perhaps the finest Greek vase to survive antiquity, a masterpiece that would soon be making headlines around the world.

The Met had agreed to pay a record $1 million for the ancient work. Hecht said it had been in the private collection of a certain Lebanese gentleman.

But when Met director Thomas Hoving heard the story, he scoffed: “I bet he doesn’t exist.”

Indeed, as Hecht later revealed in his unpublished memoir, he had just bought the vase from “loyal suppliers” who had dug it up from ancient tombs outside Rome and smuggled it out of Italy.

Robert Hecht poses in front of the famous looted Greek vase he sold the museum in 1972 for $1 million.

The ensuing controversy over the so-called Euphronios krater marked a turning point in the art world, opening the public’s eyes to the shady side of museums. It also solidified Hecht’s reputation as the preeminent dealer of classical antiquities, driving him underground — but not out of business.

He became a legendary but mysterious figure, one whose passion for ancient art overcame any questions about the destruction wrought by its illicit origins.

That career ended Wednesday, when Hecht died at his home in Paris at age 92.

His death comes less than three weeks after the ambiguous end of his criminal trial in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted antiquities. Since the 1990s, Hecht had been at the center of an Italian investigation that traced objects looted from tombs in Italy through a network of smugglers, dealers and private collectors to museums across the United States, Europe and beyond.

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

Hecht was accused of being a key player in that illicit trade, along with his alleged co-conspirators, former J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True and Italian dealer Giacomo Medici. Medici, who supplied Hecht with the Met’s famous vase after buying it from looters, was convicted in 2004. The trial of Hecht and True began in 2005, but the statute of limitations expired before the court could reach a verdict for either.

In a phone interview after his trial ended, Hecht sounded frail but characteristically coy about the source of his remarkable inventory of ancient vases, statues and frescoes, which now reside in museums around the globe.

“I have no idea of where an object was excavated,” he said. “It could have been excavated 100 years ago; it could have been excavated an hour ago.”

Hecht was born in Baltimore in 1919, heir to the Washington, D.C.-area department store chain that bore his family name. He served in the Navy Reserve in World War II, then accepted a scholarship to study classics and archaeology at the American Academy in Rome.

It was there that he began buying ancient art. At the time, ancient artifacts were sold openly to tourists in the city’s piazzas. But Hecht soon learned that his passion carried risks.

In 1962, he was barred from reentering Turkey after being accused of trying to smuggle out ancient coins. Not long after, he was accused in Italy of trafficking in looted antiquities. Italy’s highest court eventually exonerated him for lack of evidence.

That case was still working through Italy’s legal system when Hecht was offered the Euphronios krater by Medici, who had grown up near the Etruscan necropolis where the vase was illegally excavated.

The deal cemented Hecht’s relationship with Medici, whom he describes in his memoir as “a faithful purveyor” who “rose early each morning [and] toured the villages … visiting all the clandestine diggers.”

The ensuing scandal forced Hecht to relocate to Paris and do business through a series of front men, one of whom was a precocious ancient coin dealer named Bruce McNall.

“He was like a father,” said McNall, who first met Hecht in 1970 while buying ancient coins at an auction in Basel. “He was one of the most fascinating characters I’ve met in my life — a man of mystery, a genius, a family man.”

Soon after meeting, McNall and Hecht became partners, and according to McNall began selling recently looted antiquities to museums and collectors out of McNall’s Rodeo Drive storefront gallery. They also created an elaborate tax fraud scheme with former Getty antiquities curator Jiri Frel, arranging for Hollywood figures to donate looted antiquities to the Getty in exchange for inflated tax write-offs.

“I found him to be without question the most knowledgeable person I’d met in the business, much more of an academic than a dealer,” said McNall, who went on to produce Hollywood films and buy the Los Angeles Kings hockey team before going to jail on unrelated bank fraud charges.

Among Hecht’s top clients was the J. Paul Getty Museum, which was aggressively building its collection of ancient art in the 1980s and ’90s. In a deposition, True said Hecht could be “charming, very, very intelligent, but he could also turn, be very hostile, very sarcastic, very sinister.”

It was Hecht’s ties to the Getty that landed him on trial with True in Rome. In addition to Hecht’s memoir, which was seized in 2001, investigators found correspondence in which the two appeared to openly discuss the illicit origin of objects the Getty was buying.

Confronted with the evidence, the Getty and other leading American museums agreed to return more than 100 antiquities to Italy, including dozens that came through Hecht. Among them was the Met’s Euphronios krater, which was returned to Italy in 2008.

Ultimately, Italian prosecutors could not win a criminal conviction in the case before the allotted time elapsed.

“He was not able to be proven guilty, so he was innocent,” Hecht’s wife, Elizabeth, said Wednesday.

In addition to his wife, Hecht is survived by his daughters Daphne Hecht Howat of Paris, Andrea Hecht of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Donatella Hecht of Westchester, N.Y.

Please feel free to share your memories of him in the comments below.

American art dealer Robert Hecht, 86, center, is approached by reporters as he leaves a Rome court for a break Friday Jan. 13, 2006

Chasing Aphrodite in Washington DC: 1/23 @ Steptoe, 1/24 at National Press Club

We’re off to Washington DC for two great events. If you’re in the area, please join us for back-to-back evenings of lively discussion about the state of American museums and the black market in looted art.

Reminder: Both events require an RSVP via the links below. 

January 23: 6:30 pm at Steptoe and Johnson

The Society for the Preservation of Greek Heritage and the American Friends of the Acropolis Museum will host Jason for an evening lecture and book signing at the lawfirm Steptoe and Johnson.

Details: 6:30 pm at 1330 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC. RSVP by sending an email to: classic.heritage@verizon.net


January 24th: The National Press Club.

Jason (in person) and Ralph (via phone) will speak about Chasing Aphrodite, the press and transparency at American museums with former Getty antiquities curator Arthur Houghton and Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Museum of Art. Our moderator will be James Grimaldi, investigative reporter at the Washington Post. Q&A and book signing to follow. (We’ll be done in time for you to watch POTUS give the State of the Union address at 9pm.)

Details:  6pm at The National Press Club. 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor. Open to the public, $5 dollars for non-members. Tickets and details available here.

Los Angeles Readers: In you’re in Los Angeles on Monday, Jan 23, be sure to check out Getty CEO Jim Cuno’s talk at the Petersen Automotive Museum. He’ll be defending museums against those who say they are the trophy cases of imperialism and promoting his new book, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum. Details here.

Arnold-Peter Weiss and the Rhode Island School of Design

*UPDATED: See below for additional information from RISD and Harvard Art Museums.

Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss, the Rhode Island coin collector arrested Jan. 3 for felony possession of an ancient coin that authorities say he knew was recently looted from Sicily, has deep ties to the Rhode Island School of Design. He is a former trustee of the university and currently serves as former* chairman of the board of the university’s museum, to which he has donated several objects.

According to the criminal complaint against Weiss, he told a confidential informant wearing a wire that he knew where the coin “was dug up two years ago.” Weiss is innocent until proven guilty, and his lawyer has not responded to two requests for comment. If the allegations hold up in court, its appears to be a fresh example of the alarming link between the black market in looted antiquities and (apparently) respectable collectors and museums that we detail in Chasing Aphrodite.

By participating in the illicit antiquities trade, museums and collectors betray  their professed educational mission and encourage the destruction of context that happens as objects are looted and laundered through the black market.

Weiss appears to understand the importance of context in ancient art. In September 2010, when RISD reinterpreted and reinstalled its gallery of ancient, medieval and early Renaissance art, Weiss and his wife, Dr. Yvonne Weiss, a pediatrician in Barrington, RI, were major sponsors of the renovation.

“As a collector of ancient coins,” Dr. Weiss said in a press release from RISD, “my hope for this gallery—and for the entire reinstallation of the Radeke Building—is to provide visitors of all ages with context for understanding these fascinating and beautiful objects.”

The museum describes its collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art as “one of the finest collections of any university museum in the country,” and contains about seven hundred ancient coins spanning more than 1500 years. Among the collection highlights on the museum’s website are several recent acquisitions. Collecting histories are not provided for most objects.

In 2010, Weiss donated a silver Greek tetradrachm, ca. 460 BCE from Naxos. The obverse is shown here. Details and the reverse, showing Silenos holding a kantharos, can be found on the museum’s website here.

A similar coin is listed here on the website of Nomos AG, the Swiss coin dealership that Weiss launched around 2007. The Nomos coin is said to be from the Randazzo (Sicily) Hoard of 1980 and is described as “one of the greatest and best known of all 5th century Greek coins.” It sold at auction recentlyfor  775,000 CHF, well over the 400,000 CHF estimate. Weiss’ partners at Nomos are Victor England and Eric McFadden of the Classical Numismatics Group and Alan Walker, who has a doctorate in Classical Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Note: The Syracuse Decadrachm previously listed here was not a donation by Dr. Weiss but an acquisition made by the museum in 1940, according to RISD director of marketing Donna Desrochers. 

Another Weiss donation to RISD is a Flemish oil painting by artist Hendrik van Steenwyck, ca. 1550-1603. Details can be found here.

We’ve contacted the museum’s curator of ancient art, Gina Borromeo, to request additional details about these objects and any others Weiss may have donated.

We’ve sent a similar request to the Harvard Art Museums, where Weiss’ bio says he is was on the collecting committee until this month. The collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, in particular, has an impressive collection of ancient coins.

We’ll post answers here when we get them.

*Harvard UPDATE: Jennifer Aubin, the Harvard Art Museums public relations manager, provided the following information: “Dr. Peter Weiss was a member of our Collections Committee, an advisory group, from 2006–2012. We have no objects in our collections donated by or purchased from Dr. Weiss.” The Harvard Art Museums did acquire two coins through Weiss’ firm Nomos AG in 2009, both of which appear to have a long provenance. The first, a Drachm of Argos dating to 370-350 BC, can be traced back to an 1886 auction. The second, a fragment of a dekadrachm of Athens dated to 470 BC – 460 BC,  is seen in a 1968 edition of Revue Numismatique. (No images are available.) In addition, a gold wreath was loaned for exhibition by Drs. Yvonne and Arnold-Peter Weiss to the Harvard Art Museums from 2008–2010. No additional information was provided about the wreath.

Harvard UPDATE #2: In response to a follow up question about Weiss’ resignation “in 2012″, Aubin says Weiss resigned from the collections committee on January 9, 2012 — six days after his arrest.

*RISD UPDATE: Donna Desrochers, the director of marketing at RISD’s art museum, noted that Weiss’ online bio is out of date: His term as chairman of the board ended last June, and he no longer sits on the museum’s board. In addition, the Syracuse Decadrachm we listed above was not donated by Dr. Weiss. We’ve corrected the post according, and look forward to additional information from RISD.

ALSO:  Paul Barford at his Portable Antiquities Collecting blog reports an unconfirmed rumor on coin discussion groups that Interpol arrest warrants may have been issued for an American dealer and two Italian dealers. He has additional thoughts and information here, here and here.

ALSO: David Gill at Looting Matters digs up this quote from Weiss from a 2002 NYT story: “They [ancient coins] have good rates of return — not as good as when we were riding the Internet bubble, but the coin market hasn’t burst.”

The Best of Chasing Aphrodite 2011

Happy New Year!

We want to share our profound thanks for the 24,000 visits we’ve had since we launched this site with the release of Chasing Aphrodite last May. You’ve helped make the book a success while shining a light on art world shenanigans. Thank you for reading.

We’ve got many more revelations in store for you in 2012. If you’d like to keep receiving updates, be sure to subscribe via the box on the top right. You can also follow our more frequent comments on the latest news by liking our Facebook page or following us on Twitter.

We hope to see some of you at our upcoming events, which include talks at the National Press Club in DC on January 24th and Google and UCLA in February. You can get details and find our other event listings here.

Without further ado, here are your favorite posts of 2011:

1. An Exchange with Hugh Eakin at The New York Review of Books

Our exchange with Hugh Eakin in The New York Review of Books caught a lot of attention last year. We found the review flattering in several places, but also curiously littered with contradictions. Here is Hugh’s June  review, and our response. An abbreviated version of the exchange was printed in the NYROB’s August issue here.

2. The Secret FBI File: J. Edgar Hoover vs. J. Paul Getty

Was J. Paul Getty a Nazi collaborator? That is the provocative question that J. Edgar Hoover asked in 1940, when the FBI opened a secret investigation into J. Paul Getty’s possible ties to the Nazi regime. While reporting Chasing Aphrodite, we obtained Getty’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. We posted the annotated file online and pulled out highlights of the investigation.

3. Getty Museum Returns Two Objects to Greece, Signs Collaboration Deal

In 2011, American museums continued to return looted antiquities to their country of origin, and the Getty Museum was no exception. In September, the Getty agreed to return two objects to Greece and formalized a broad cultural agreement that will lead to loans, joint research and other collaboration with the art-rich Hellenic Republic. The agreement mirrors similar deals struck with Italy and Sicily in the wake of a negotiated settlement to claims the Getty had for years purchased ancient art looted from those countries.

4. The Becchina Dossier: A New Window into the Illicit Trade

The conviction of Italian dealer Giacamo Medici set off the whirlwind of controversy detailed in the final chapters of Chasing Aphrodite. But Medici was just the opening move of the Italian investigation of the illicit antiquities trade. In 2001, Italian authorities raided the warehouse of Medici’s main rival, Gianfranco Becchina, seizing 13,000 documents, 6,315 antiquities and 8,000 photographs of objects, many of which appeared recently excavated.  Today, it is the Becchina Dossier that forms the center of Italy’s continuing investigation of the international trade in looted antiquities. Like the Medici files, the Becchina Dossier provides a striking record of the illicit trade, showing the path of thousands of looted objects from tombs across the Mediterranean to the display cases of leading museums around the world. Stay tuned as we’ll be making public more details from the Becchina case in 2012.

5. Chasing Persephone?

When the Getty’s statue of Aphrodite was returned to Italy in May, we were there to tell the story. In this report for the LA Times, Jason described how new theories about the goddess are being considered now that she’s back home. Who is the goddess? Does her slightly awkward marble head really belong atop the massive limestone body? Where precisely was she found? And what can she tell us about the ancient Greek colonists who worshiped her some 2,400 years ago? The fact that so little is known about the marble and limestone statue — one of the few surviving sculptures from the apex of Western art — illustrates the lasting harm brought by looting and the trade in illicit antiquities.

6. Jiri Frel: Scholar, Refugee, Curator…Spy?

In the early 1980s, the antiquities department at the J. Paul Getty Museum was a hotbed of whispered political intrigue. Rumors swirled that the department’s Czech curator, Jiri Frel, was a Communist spy. And many believed the deputy curator, former State Department official Arthur Houghton, was a CIA plant tasked with keeping an eye on Frel’s activities. Frel’s once-classified FBI file, obtained by the authors under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the US Government asked similar questions about Frel in 1971, when an investigation was conducted into his “possible intelligence connections.”

7. The Getty Fights to Keep its Bronze

A week after sending its statue of Aphrodite back to Italy, the Getty was fighting to keep another ancient masterpiece: its priceless bronze statue of an athlete, whose 1964 discovery by Italian fisherman is featured in the opening chapter of Chasing Aphrodite. Here’s our report on the latest in the fight for the Getty  bronze.

8. Houghton on The McClain Doctrine and Crimes of Knowledge

Did American museum officials violate US laws when buying looted antiquities? We attempt to answer that hypothetical using internal Getty memos written by former curator Arthur Houghton, who spelled out the risk of violating the National Stolen Property Act when buying objects with unclear provenance.

9. The Truth about Marion True

When archaeologist Malcolm Bell reviewed Chasing Aphrodite in The Wall Street Journal in July, he largely agreed with our premise — that  American museums fueled the destruction of knowledge by acquiring looted antiquities and using what Bell calls a “fabric of lies” to obscure their complicity in an illicit trade. But Bell’s review took an odd turn when he recommended that former Getty antiquities curator Marion True, who was fired after we revealed her blatant conflicts of interest, be hired “for a major museum position.” We respond.

10. Looted Antiquities at American Museums: An On-Going Crime

For those who might be tempted to think the issues raised in Chasing Aphrodite are behind us, we discuss a recent law review article that argues that continued possession of unprovenanced antiquities (ie most of those in American collections) could be an on-going crime under US law.

BONUS: Finding Loot at Your Local Museum

Marion True once told her museum colleagues: “Experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely — if not certain — that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.” In that same spirit, we gave fellow investigative reporters from around the world a few tips on how to find looted antiquities at their local art museum during the June meeting of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

In 2011, we put that advice to work with revelations about objects in several museum collections. Our New Year’s resolution: to do much more of the same in 2012!

Upcoming Events: Chasing Aphrodite at the National Press Club, Google and UCLA

Here are several new events we’ve lined up in the coming months :

January 23, Washington DC: The Society for the Preservation of Greek Heritage, the American Friends of the Acropolis Museum and the lawfirm Steptoe and Johnson will host Jason for an evening lecture and book signing at Steptoe and Johnson in Washington DC. Details TBA.


January 24th: The National Press Club, Washington DC.

Jason and Ralph will speak about Chasing Aphrodite, the press and transparency at American museums with former Getty antiquities curator Arthur Houghton and Walters Museum director Gary Vikan. Our moderator will be James Grimaldi, investigative reporter at the Washington Post. Q&A, book signing and reception to follow.

Details: Open to the public. 6pm at The National Press Club. 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor. Phone: 202-662-7500 or www.press.org

February 10th, 2012: Google HQ, Mountainview CA.

Jason will talk about Chasing Aphrodite and how crowd-sourcing might be harnessed to fight the illicit antiquities trade at the Googleplex, Google’s Mountainview headquarters.

Details: Open to the public. 12- 1pm @ 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway in Mountain View, CA.

February 15, 2012: UCLA. Details TBA.

You can find updates at our events page here.

Our past events include: The Jonathan Club; Chapman University; Central Michigan University; The Walters Art Museum; UPenn Law School; UPenn Museum; The Harvard Club of New York City; The National Arts Club; Princeton University; Villanova Law School; Rutgers University; New York University; Cardozo Law School;  Archaeological Institute of America’s New York Chapter; SAFE; The Benson Family Farm; Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle; Powell’s Book in Portland; The Commonwealth Club of San Francisco;  Loyola Law School; Barnes and Noble of Thousand Oaks; Book Soup on Hollywood Blvd.;  The LA Festival of Books.

To suggest an event near you, please contact us: ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com.

Hot Docs: Marion True the Crusader

Former Getty Antiquities Curator Marion True

One of the most scathing rebukes of the collecting practices of American museums in recent memory came not from a grumpy archaeologist, a nosy journalist or an overzealous foreign prosecutor. It came from one of the museum field’s rising stars: Getty antiquities curator Marion True.

In June 2000, True delivered a gutsy speech to an audience of museum peers that denounced them for relying on “distorted, patronizing and self-serving” arguments to justify their collecting of ancient art. Over the course of the next hour, True dismantled the various justifications museums had long used to buy ancient art that was almost certainly looted.

The speech, whose full text we’ve posted and annotated here, is remarkable not just for True’s scathing remarks but also for their venue: the annual gathering of the Association of Art Museum Directors. The group is the museum profession’s most powerful, consisting of representatives from the country’s largest and wealthiest collecting institutions. As such, the AAMD wields immense clout on matters of institutional policy, including collection practices.

Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Met

Under the sway of former directors Philippe de Montebello of the Met and James Cuno of the Art Institute of Chicago (now CEO of the Getty), the AAMD had long resisted the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which calls for import restrictions and international cooperation to stop trafficking in illicit antiquities. Instead, AAMD’s guidelines were riddled with caveats and loopholes that allowed member institutions to buy undocumented antiquities as long as the pieces were artistically “significant.” In her speech, True was calling out the power structure of American museums.

James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust

Her speech was inspired by an earlier panel at Columbia University on the Elgin Marbles. The discussion “had nearly devolved into a fistfight” when a fellow panelist suggested the Parthenon sculptures needed to remain the British Museum because the Greeks were “unworthy custodians and therefore did not deserve to have it” [sic]. “As the three front rows of the audience were primarily of Greek nationals or Greek Americans, this statements did not go down very well,” True noted dryly.

True said the debate had caused her to re-trace the evolution of what had become an increasingly nasty debate about cultural patrimony that pit foreign officials and archaeologists against American museums, dealers and collectors. “Given the seemingly noble intentions that inspired the foundation and development of American Art museums, how have they now come to be so often in direct conflict with the source countries and the academic communities that work on cultural heritage?”

Her answer laid the blame squarely at the feet of American museums, which had used similarly “demeaning arguments” to justify their acquisition of marquee objects and to brush off the concerns of foreign countries. She listed the most common arguments, many of which are still used today:

“–Because the contemporary population was ethnically not the same people as the creators even thought they inhabit the same territory;

–Because the police force in the source country does not do enough to protect its patrimony and maybe even is in collusion with the smugglers;

–Because art historians in the country are not up to the job of studying their own patrimony but have had to look to the British German and American scholars for leadership;

–Or because the national laws governing the protection of cultural properties are repressive since they do not allow the free trade in the objects that US laws allow and,

–Or most perplexingly and inflammatory, in the case of Italy, because Mussolini had continued to enforce the laws instituted in the 18th century to protect Italian artistic heritage, that we would be enforcing the laws of a fascist regime.”

“Surely,” True said, “we should not have to rely on such distorted, patronizing and self-serving observations to justify collecting ancient art in this country.”

Next, she turned her sights on dealers and collectors, who still “vehemently denied” the extent of looting that has been clearly documented by archaeologists and governments. Their claims that the illicit trade was small were “contradicted by the evidence,” including their own political machinations to gut American laws prohibiting the import of such objects. It was time to accept that most undocumented antiquities came not from “old European collections,” as dealers and museums were fond of claiming, but from recent chance finds or illegal excavations, True said.

Likewise, the claim made by Sothebys and other auction houses that sellers preferred not to reveal provenance information “flew in the face of logic” because such information would only increase an object’s value. And the common practice of asking governments for evidence of whether a piece had been looted “conveniently ignores” the fact that, by definition, such objects are “undocumented,” she said.

She concluded with a knock-out punch: “Most museums have long preferred to consider objects innocent until proven guilty,” she said, citing the Getty’s own 1987 acquisition policy and the writings of James Cuno while at the Harvard Arts Museums. “But experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely—if not certain—that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.

“It has been our unwillingness to do so that is most directly responsible for the conflicts between museums, archaeologists and the source countries.”

In one fell swoop, True had laid bare the cynical path of many museum masterpieces—a path few insiders had ever been willing to publicly acknowledge.

But as powerful and succinct as True’s presentation was, her listeners could have been forgiven a measure of skepticism. While it represented one side of Marion True – the crusader for reform — they knew another: the accomplished curator and competitor who for a decade had used those very same tactics to fill the Getty with some of the best undocumented pieces in the world. Indeed, True’s intimate knowledge of museums’ efforts to navigate the illicit trade was based on her personal experience.

As it happened, the day after True gave her speech a judge in Switzerland ruled that Italian officials could take possession of hundreds of Polaroids and documents that had been seized in a 1995 raid of an antiquities dealer’s Geneva warehouse. The Polaroids showed scores of looted artifacts as they appeared fresh from the ground. Eventually Italian investigators traced the greatest number to the Getty and Italian prosecutors started planning a prosecution of Marion True.

A Polaroid of the Getty's Statue of Apollo showing it soon after being looted

Soon after, an internal Getty probe found similar photos in True’s own curatorial files showing, in the words of the Getty’s outside counsel, “objects in a state of disrepair or in a location from which they may have been excavated.” The Getty’s attorney concluded it would take little for the Italians to link True to a conspiracy or to support a claim that the curator “knew or should have known that many objects acquired by the Getty were illegally excavated from Italy.”

Among their best evidence, he noted, would be True’s own 2000 speech before her peers at the AAMD.

Beacon Award for Chasing Aphrodite authors

We’re honored to announce our work has been recognized with a Beacon Award from Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), the non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage worldwide.

In announcing the 2011 award, SAFE cited the authors “for educating the public about how museum practices affect the preservation of cultural heritage. As investigative reporters at the Los Angeles Times, their dedication to uncovering the truth was essential in breaking open the case with the J. Paul Getty Museum. Through their recent book and continued effort to raise awareness online, many will learn, some for the first time, about the devastating effects of the illicit antiquities trade.”

SAFE will be presenting the award at a dinner in New York City on October 28th. You can find details on this and our other upcoming East Coast appearances here.

We’d also like to congratulate the 2012 Beacon Award Winner David Gill, the mind behind Looting Matters and soon to be Head of Humanities and Professor of Archaeological Heritage at University Campus Suffolk. We’ve followed David’s important research closely over the years and his blog is must-read for those interested in the illicit antiquities trade.

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.

Notes on a Scandal: Our Advice for Italy and American Museums

The Art Newspaper is preparing an article looking back at the looting scandal that erupted between Italy and US museums in 2005 and continues today. They’ve asked us what advice we might have for both parties.
Here’s what we had to say:
“Now is a critical time for both parties. These next few years will determine whether the spirit of cooperation achieved after a painful period of scandal will amount to more than a mere pause in the antiquities wars. Both sides must to work hard to ensure it is a lasting peace.
Italian authorities helped promote dramatic changes in collecting practices in the United States. They should resist the temptation to continue strong-arm tactics (see Padgett), which will ultimately lose them the public support they have enjoyed. Rather, they should build on their success by extending the collaboration agreements they forged with the Met and the Getty to all American museums open to the exchange of cultural property and conservation know-how. They should continue to extend the period allowed for long-term loans, and find new ways to share their remarkable collections. Finally, they should find a way, within the bounds of the legal process, to publicly release the Medici archives and other evidence of the illicit trade. Museums should confront the truth, not live in fear of the next Polaroid to be leaked from the archives.
American museums have made remarkable changes in a relatively short period of time, rejecting the illicit trade and embracing a new era of loans and collaboration. To indicate their commitment to this path, they should double down on their efforts at transparency, publishing their complete antiquities collections online with detailed provenance information available to the public. They should take a proactive role in investigating their own ancient art, treating it with the seriousness they do their provenance research of possible Nazi loot. They should disclose the troubling information they are likely to find as a gesture of their good faith embrace of reform, and as an opportunity to build collaborative relationships with foreign governments like Italy.
Two key events will provide both sides the opportunity to build trust and show their embrace of the new ethos: The trial over the Getty Bronze and the Michael Padgett case. Italy and the Getty should find a way to settle their dispute over the bronze outside of court, using the principles both sides articulated in their 2007 agreement. This will involve some painful compromise. And the Padgett case should be resolved without the need for another criminal trial like that of Marion True — lengthy, destructive and ultimately fruitless.”
What’s your advice for Italy and American museums? Let us know in the comments below.