Tag Archives: Chasing Aphrodite

The Year of Aphrodite: Book Launch Plus 365

One year ago, Chasing Aphrodite hit bookstores. The amazing success we’ve enjoyed over the past twelve months is humbling, and we thought it a good opportunity to thank you, our most dedicated fans. Thank you for everything you’ve done to help spread the word.

Here are some highlights from the past year:

We’ve written magazine cover-stories and excerpts; newspaper Op-Eds and several articles; and nearly 100 muckraking blog posts, including several exclusive scoops.

We’ve fired off 2,000 tweets with the latest looting news; and fed our 300 Facebook friends with a steady stream of news and updates about museums and the illicit antiquities trade.

We’ve revealed suspect art at the Met, the Getty, the Seattle Art Museum, the ClevelandDumbarton Oaks, The Norton SimonTampaToledoDallasKimbellLACMA, the WaltersBoston MFASan Antonio MuseumIndiana UniversityHarvardPrincetonYaleRISDSotheby’s and elsewhere.

We’ve received rave reviews from readers and critics (a few sour ones too) and have been interviewed by an alphabet soup of outlets: NPR, PBS, VOA, KPCC, KCRW, KQED, KPFK, etc.

We’ve (briefly) made the bestseller list, and sold more copies that the publisher (and authors) expected — we’re currently in the third printing. Chasing Aphrodite has been honored with the SAFE Beacon Award, the ARCA Prize for Art Crime Scholarship and, most recently, the California Book Award.

The authors in front of the goddess in her new home.

We escorted a goddess back to her homeland.

We’ve given talks at Google; The Pacific Palisades Historical Society; UCLA; The National Press Club; Society for the Preservation of Greek Heritage/Friends of the New Acropolist Museum; The Jonathan Club of Los Angeles; 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 (NY Chapter); SAFE; The Benson Family Farm; Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle; Powell’s Books in Portland; The Commonwealth Club of San Francisco;  Loyola Law School; University of Kore in Enna, Sicily; Book Soup on Hollywood Blvd; Barnes and Noble of Thousand Oaks; and the LA Festival of Books.

Looking forward, we’re hard at work on WikiLoot, our new initiative to crowdsource the fight against the illicit antiquities trade.

Thanks to you, our dedicated readers, for helping us achieve all this and more over the past year.

Jason and Ralph

PS: It’s not too late to recommend Chasing Aphrodite to a friend. But you better hurry up: last we checked, Amazon only had 11 copies left!

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!

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.

The Truth about Marion True: Our Response to Malcolm Bell’s review in WSJ

Malcolm Bell’s review of our book Chasing Aphrodite (WSJ, July 1) concurred with our central finding—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.

The review takes a befuddling turn, however, in Bell’s defense of Marion True, the former Getty antiquities curator at the center of the book.

Bell recommends True be hired for “a major museum position.” He is apparently unbothered by glaring conflicts of interest. As we detail in the book, True twice accepted secret six-figure loans from two of the museum’s most prominent sources of ancient art. It was those loans — not her indictment by Italy for allegedly trafficking in looted art — that ended True’s career, ruined her professional reputation and silenced many of her most ardent supporters. The ethics policy of Bell’s own university bars such conflicts, as would common sense. Yet Bell urges us to ignore them.

Archaeologist Malcolm Bell, who has led the American excavation at Morgantina since the early 1980s.

Elsewhere in the review, Bell says we “undervalue” True’s efforts at reform. In fact, we took pains to research True’s path as a reformer, and our book details many efforts that had not previously been published. For example, under the Freedom of Information Act we obtained a previously unreleased copy of her remarks before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee arguing in favor of import restrictions on Italian antiquities, a position that won her no favor with museum colleagues. Her defense of Italy’s request (which was drafted by Bell) proved influential in the panel’s subsequent decision to grant it.

Bell also claims we “repeatedly cast doubt on her actions and motives.” In his view, after some “unwise” acquisitions, True underwent a “radical change of course” in 1995, and her subsequent reforms did far more good than the harmful practices in her past. While it is tempting to think of the curator’s story as a Pauline tale of conversion, True’s actions are more complex than that, and more troubling. Over her two decades as curator, True often acted as the reformer and the acquisitive curator at the same time. She appears to have adopted both identities, and used them to accomplish her ends as the circumstances required. It is this conflicted behavior that raise questions about True’s motives.

For example, in 1988, just months after completing the acquisition of the clearly looted statue of Aphrodite, True denounced a Cleveland dealer for trying to sell a Cypriot mosaic of similarly dubious origins. In 1993, when True was offered a suspect ancient funerary wreath in a Swiss bank vault, she took the high road, declining the offer because it was “too dangerous.” Yet months later, she changed her mind and recommended the wreath’s purchase.

In 1995, True led the reform of the Getty’s acquisition policy, but a year later violated the spirit of her reform in order to acquire the antiquities collection of her close friends Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman. (It was her colleague and confidant John Papadopoulos who considered the move hypocritical, not us, as Bell claims.)

And in 2001, long after her supposed conversion, True proposed the acquisition of a bronze Poseidon, withholding troubling information about its origins in what Getty attorneys concluded was “materially misleading.”

Are True’s conflicting actions a sign of hypocrisy? Ernest indecision? Remarkable self-blindness? Only True knows for sure, and we leave the question to the reader to decide. (In polls on this site, six of ten readers said they would not hire her, and seven in ten think she was guilty of trafficking in looted antiquities.)

In the end, we share some of Bell’s obvious sympathy for True’s plight. Until recently, she was the only American curator targeted by Italy for a practice that has long been rampant in American museums. And we share his sense of injustice that none of True’s superiors or peers were held to similar account. As we wrote in the book’s epilogue, “True, at once the greatest sinner and the greatest champion of reform, has been made to pay for the crimes of American museums.”

But sympathy should not blind us to the troubling complexities of True’s actions. Bell would do well to heed his own advice when he writes that True’s “bitter experience offers lessons to all parties.” Sadly, in the end it was not True’s conflicted crusade for reform that brought about the dramatic changes we have seen in recent years. It was her downfall.

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

Editor’s Choice: “It’s impossible not to become engaged…”

The Christian Science Monitor has named Chasing Aphrodite an “Editor’s Choice.” Their review says:

“Felch and Frammolino are serious men, investigative reporters at the top of their games, who very intelligently lay out all the issues at stake here, and you’d probably do best to read this one sitting up straight.

But like all of the titles above, “Chasing Aphrodite” is blessed with the odd allure that marks the world of art itself – a world that Felch and Frammolino describe as “glamorous but not pretty.”

Low-down thugs rub elbows with terrifyingly erudite curators and ridiculously wealthy collectors, all of them almost helplessly attracted to a handful of the most beautiful objects in the world. Museum staffs with more PhDs per capita than you’ll find at MIT create “spiteful environment[s]” in which a sense of entitlement runs wild and trips to Paris on the Concorde are viewed as a basic right. And then there are the earnest investigators – Italian, in this case – driven by a deep-seated conviction that what’s theirs is theirs and that when it comes to the finest of antiquities “such loveliness belongs at home.”

Felch and Frammolino researched their topic for five years, doing countless interviews and enjoying access to confidential Getty files. The result is a book so tightly nailed down that when they describe a meeting you sometimes learn who sat where and what the weather was like that day.

That’s not to say that it’s not a page turner. As a reader it’s impossible not to become engaged with characters like True, who started life in blue-collar Massachusetts but eventually landed – thanks to morally questionable intervention on the part of some wealthy friends of the Getty – a Greek villa of her own.

It’s a world that’s as distant from most of us as the Peloponnesian War – and yet as close as the museum that you visited last week.”

Read the full review here.

Review and Interview with ARCA

The Association for Research into Crimes against Art has posted a great review of Chasing Aphrodite and an interview with Jason about the recent return of the Getty goddess.

Q: How did you feel, being so close to this story, seeing “Aphrodite” being returned to her homeland? Did you understand more about the statute by visiting the area she came from?

A terracotta Persephone on display in the same gallery as the goddess. Many experts now believe the Getty goddess is not Aphrodite.

Jason: We were thrilled to be able to attend the inauguration of the Getty goddess in her new home in Aidone, Sicily. For both Ralph and me, the trip — which coincided with the release of Chasing Aphrodite — really brought a feeling of closure to our own “chase,” which began more than six years ago. Seeing the goddess — can’t really call her Aphrodite anymore — in Sicily brought up some bittersweet feelings. The archaeological museum there sees about 17,000 visitors a year, far fewer than the 400,000 than visit the Getty Villa. Sicilian officials are hoping the goddess’ return will change that, but certainly fewer people will see her now, and LA has lost an important masterpiece. That said, it was VERY powerful to see the statue in her new context, a stone’s throw from Morgantina, the Greek ruins from where she was looted in the late 1970s. Surrounded by eerily similar figures depicting the fertility goddesses Persephone and Demeter, the statue takes on a startling new meaning.

If you don’t know it, ARCA is an interdisciplinary research group on issues of art crime. In addition to publishing the biannual peer-reviewed Journal of Art Crime they host conferences and publish a good blog here.

Chasing Persephone?

In Sunday’s LA Times, Jason has an article on his recent trip to Aidone, Sicily, where the return of the Getty’s goddess has revived a debate about her true identity: Aphrodite, or Persephone?

The vista of central Sicily from the ruins of Morgantina, where the statue of Aphrodite was illegally excavated in the late 1970s.

“In ancient times, central Sicily was the bread basket of the Western world. Fields of rolling wheat and wildflowers, groves of olive and pomegranate and citrus — even today, fertility seems to spring from the volcanic soils surrounding Mt. Etna as if by divine inspiration.

It was here on the shores of Lake Pergusa that ancient sources say Persephone, the goddess of fertility, was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. She was forced to return there for three months every year, the Greek explanation for the barren months of winter.

Ancient sources say it was while picking flowers along the banks of this lake, a short drive from Morgantina, that Persephone was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld.

When Greek colonists settled the region some 2,500 years ago, they built cult sanctuaries to Persephone and her mother, Demeter. The ruins of Morgantina, the major Greek settlement built here, brim with terra-cotta and stone icons of the two deities.

It seems a fitting new home for the J. Paul Getty Museum’s famous cult statue of a goddess, which many experts now believe represents Persephone, not Aphrodite, as she has long been known.

The Getty goddess in her new home in the archaeological museum in Aidone, Sicily.

Since the Getty’s controversial purchase of the statue in 1988 for $18 million, painstaking investigations by police, curators, academics, journalists, attorneys and private investigators have pieced together the statue’s journey from an illicit excavation in Morgantina in the late 1970s to the Getty Museum.

The Getty returned the goddess to Italy this spring, and a new exhibition showing the statue and other repatriated antiquities from a private American collector and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was inaugurated here last week.

The archaeological museum in Aidone, Sicily

The goddess’ new home is a 17th century Capuchin monastery that now serves as the archaeological museum in Aidone, a hilltop village of about 6,000 residents. The cozy museum, which holds up to 150 visitors at a time, contains the most important objects discovered in the nearby ruins of Morgantina.

During its 22 years at the Getty Museum, the statue was virtually ignored by scholars, thanks largely to the aura of controversy that surrounded it. But as the scandal recedes, new, deeper mysteries about her are finally coming to the fore.

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 worshipped 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. As the goddess was smuggled through the black market, she was stripped of her meaning and rendered a mute object of beauty.

The one thing scholars agree upon is her importance. The goddess’ clinging, windblown drapery is a clear reference to Phidias, the Greek master who a few decades earlier carved the figures that adorned the Parthenon in Greece — many of which now reside in the British Museum.

“It’s one of the very few examples we have from the high Classical period,” said Katerina Greco, a Sicilian archaeological official and leading expert in Greek art who wrote one of the few studies of the statue. “There is nothing like it in Italy.”

Today, central Sicily is an underdeveloped backwater of Europe. Just 17,000 visitors currently see the archaeological museum in Aidone where the statue now sits. At the Getty, about 400,000 saw her every year.

Residents here hope that the statue’s return marks the beginning of a new chapter, one focused on economic development and a deeper understanding of the goddess’ identity and significance.

“The statue didn’t exist by herself, she was made for a specific place and a particular purpose,” said Flavia Zisa, president of Mediterranean archaeology at the University of Kore in nearby Enna.

Most experts today agree the goddess most likely does not represent Aphrodite, as former Getty antiquities curator Marion True surmised when she proposed the statue for acquisition. But because some key fragments are missing from the goddess, scholars remain divided.

Greco has argued that the goddess represents Demeter, noting her matronly build and the remains of a veil covering her hair, a feature most often identified with older women in Greek times. In a forthcoming study, New York University professor Clemente Marconi will expand on his argument that the goddess is Persephone.

A terracotta Persephone on display in the same gallery as the goddess. Many experts now believe the Getty goddess is not Aphrodite.

In an acknowledgement of the changing views of the statue’s identity, Sicilian officials have re-branded the statue as the “goddess” of Morgantina and abandoned earlier references to Venus, the Roman name for Aphrodite.

More definitive answers to the mysteries of the goddess may rest with the looters who dug her up. If the statue’s exact excavation spot were known, archaeologists could re-excavate the area and build a better understanding of her purpose.

But omerta — the Sicilian oath of silence — has long kept that key piece of information a secret. Whispers in Aidone tell of two shepherd brothers who found the statue on the eastern flank of Morgantina where a sanctuary to Demeter and Persephone has been found.

“It is time for them to speak,” said Silvio Raffiotta, a local prosecutor who investigated the statue’s looting in the 1990s. “Now there is no risk.”