Tag Archives: museums

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.

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!

Looted Antiquities at American Museums: An On-Going Crime, law professor argues

In January 2008, more than one hundred federal agents raided four Southern California museums. They seized scores of Southeast Asian antiquities that investigators said had been looted and illegally smuggled into Los Angeles before being donated at inflated values to the museums.

Since then, nothing much has happened in the case. But one legal expert is warning that the case represents a ticking time bomb for American museums, whose antiquities collections are still filled with looted antiquities.

If the raids result in convictions, the legal fallout could be devastating, argues Stephen K. Urice, a University of Miami law professor and one of the country’s foremost legal minds on cultural property.

Stephen K. Urice

“Continued possession of virtually all unprovenanced antiquities in public museums within the court’s jurisdiction would suddenly become actionable under the [National Stolen Property Act], and museums would be obligated to divest themselves of those collections promptly,” Urice writes. “Failure to do so would expose the antiquities to civil seizure and forfeiture proceedings, and the museums’ board and staff members to criminal liability.”

This doomsday scenario comes not from the alarmist fringes in the debate over antiquities but an avowed centrist. Urice is a former museum director with a PhD in archaeology, and was the founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s cultural law program. He has earned respect from archaeologists and museums alike for his dispassionate, middle-of-the-road analyses of museum policies and cultural property statutes.

That’s why Urice’s 39-page article in the Summer 2010 issue of the New Mexico Law Review is so striking. His analysis, now bubbling up in cultural circles, is too involved to present in full here. But in essence, it predicts a doomsday scenario based on a little noticed wrinkle in the NSPA, the key U.S. criminal law in antiquities looting cases.

LACMA Director Michael Govan asks federal agents to let him into the museum on the morning of the raid

In the 1977 McClain case, in which five Texas dealers were convicted of smuggling looted Mexican artifacts, prosecutors successfully asserted the antiquities were “stolen property” under US law if they were exported illegally from a foreign country with an enforced cultural property law that gives the government rightful owner of such artifacts. (According to the UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws, 180 countries have passed one or more such statutes ).

Urice reasons that this interpretation is easily extended to most museum antiquities collections, where the bulk of objects could be considered contraband because they lack provenance (ownership history) and valid export licenses.

Museums have believed that the statute of limitations would protect them from such claims. But Urice notes that a 1986 change in the NSPA added possession of such objects as a crime. Since possession is an on-going act, Urice writes, “even in situations where the museum had taken possession of an antiquity decades ago, there would be no statute of limitations defense.”

This hasn’t come up in past antiquities cases since prosecutors went after collectors or dealers. The Southern California raids, however, specifically targeted museums, which under McClain arguably possess stolen property. Urice argues that a successful conviction in the case would trigger a chain reaction, forcing other museums in the court district (such as the Getty) to disgorge their unprovenanced artifacts or have their officers face criminal indictment.

In Urice’s view, this is an unacceptable – and unintended — outcome of the law that would strip American museums of an important teaching tool. What to do?

Urice suggests several remedies. Among them is a law exempting museums from the potential fallout of Southern California case and other antiquities claims under the NSPA. A second one is to replace the NSPA with a new law with input from archaeologists and collectors — a likely bitter and tortuous process.

One question not addressed in the article: Are Urice’s warnings a present-day reality? After all, federal courts in New York and Texas have both found the McClain Doctrine to be the ruling precedent, making possession of looted antiquities an on-going federal crime. In order to seize the objects, the government would only need to establish probable cause that the objects were illegally exported — the burden would be on the museum to prove legal export, something that can’t be done for most antiquities. All that’s missing is a US Attorney interested in making such a bold case.

Whatever the answer, Urice’s article makes clear the legal struggle over looted antiquities did not end with the Getty scandal.

If the Southern California case moves forward, the worse may be yet to come.

HOT DOC: Urice on Unprovenanced Antiquities and the National Stolen Property Act

Our coverage of the January 2008 museum raids:

Raids Suggest A Deeper Network of Looted Antiquities

Federal Probe of Stolen Art Goes National

Roxanna Brown: A Passion for Art, a Perilous Pursuit (3-part series)

A Call from Robert Hecht: I’m Not a Squealer

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

Robert Hecht

Robert Hecht called the other day to say he’d received the copy of Chasing Aphrodite that we sent to his home on Boulevard La Tour Maubourg in Paris.

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

Hecht is the American antiquities dealer who has dominated the trade for more than 50 years. Italian authorities believe he was also a mastermind of the international blackmarket in looted art — his name appeared at the top of an organization chart of looters, middlemen and dealers that Italian police found in the early 1990s. When Getty antiquities curator Marion True was indicted in 2005, Hecht was named as her co-defendant. His criminal trial in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted art continues today.

Here’s how we describe “the preeminent middleman of the classical antiquities trade” on page 30:

“Since the 1950s, Hecht had sold some of the finest pieces of classical art to emerge on the market. [...] His network of loyal suppliers reached deep into the tombs and ruins of Greece, Turkey, and Italy. [...] His clients included dozens of American and European museums, universities, and private collectors, including J. Paul Getty, whom Hecht had once persuaded to buy an intricately carved Roman bust. For decades, Hecht single-handedly dominated the antiquities market with his brilliance, brutality, and panache. He cited Virgil as readily as the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan, and he was known to break into operatic arias. He often drank to excess and was known to gamble his money away in all-night backgammon games. He tamed competitors with an unpredictable temper and eliminated rivals with anonymous calls to the police. Even those who sold directly to museums gave Hecht a cut of the deal, earning him the nickname ‘Mr. Percentage.'”

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

That’s the first of nearly thirty references to Hecht in Chasing Aphrodite. Even so, we felt it was short shrift for a man whose role in the art market is truly legendary. During our interviews and meetings with Hecht over the years, he was always a pleasure to deal with. He is an engaging dinner companion, often charming and talkative while being coy about the key details we were scratching for. Today, at 92 years old, he suffers from some health problems but retains the sharp wit he’s long been known for.

So, what did Hecht think of the book? “It was a well written book except for one lie, which I hope was not your invention,” he said.

Hecht was not disturbed by the allegations that he virtually ran the illicit antiquities trade for 50 years. He wasn’t upset about being called a gambler and an abusive alcoholic, or a participant in a massive tax fraud scheme, or the man largely responsible for the destruction of thousands of archaeological sites. The offending passage was the  reference to Hecht “eliminating rivals with an anonymous call to the police.” We based it on conversations with Italian law enforcement sources. Hecht assures us it is not true.

“The accusation of being a squealer is very serious,” Hecht said. “That is not in my blood.” Hecht said such accusations could be bad for business, which has been slow lately: “A customer might say, oh my god, you’re a spy for the police.” Hecht’s wife Elizabeth got on the phone next to explain that the charge had troubled her husband: “A lot of people we know did do that, but Bob never did. He’s not a rat, and does not wish to be known as such.”

Cult Statue of a Goddess (Aphrodite)

Many in the trade recall how Hecht threatened to expose his rivals in a memoir he was writing. He never followed through on those threats — the unpublished memoir was seized by Italian authorities and is now among the most compelling evidence against him at trial.

But dropping a dime to the police is different. Going back over our notes, there is only one specific case Italian authorities cited in suspecting Hecht of being “a squealer.” It involved the Getty’s 1988 acquisition of the statue of Aphrodite from Hecht’s rival, London dealer Robin Symes.

Shortly after the whopping $18 million acquisition — a record at the time –Interpol Paris received an anonymous tip claiming the Aphrodite had been looted from Morgantina, Sicily. The tipster named the looters and middlemen in the transaction with detail that later proved remarkably accurate. Italian authorities have long suspected the source was Hecht, who lived in Paris at the time and may have been jealous of his rival Symes. But the Italians have no proof of their hunch, and Hecht flatly denies being the tipster.

Given his clear denial, and absent further supporting evidence from our Italian sources, we agreed to correct the record. Robert Hecht is many things, but to the best of our knowledge, he is not a squealer.

We’ve invited Hecht to join us later this month in his hometown of Baltimore, where we’ll be speaking at the Walters Museum on October 29th. He will be in the States that week and did not rule out the possibility of joining us.

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.

Podcast: Chasing Aphrodite at the Commonwealth Club

 

 

The Commonwealth Club has posted a podcast from Jason’s July 12 appearance.

The hour-long conversation with host Anne W. Smith, chair of the Club’s Art Forum, touched on a wide range of issues including the origins of the Getty scandal, political pressure we faced while covering it for the LA Times, and lessons to be learned for non-profits and arts organizations. The lively audience of about 60 had great questions.

You can listen to the podcast here.

 

 

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.

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.

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