Tag Archives: Princeton University

Chasing Aphrodite at Google: Jason Felch on the Illicit Antiquities Trade and WikiLoot

Google's pet T-Rex, Stan, is on the prowl at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.

On February 10th, Jason visited the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA to talk about Chasing Aphrodite and to solicit help with a new initiative, WikiLoot.

The talk was part of the Authors@Google program, and was organized by Jason’s old friend Steve Meaney, who works in marketing there. (Thanks, Steve!) Also attending were several people from the archaeology department at nearby Stanford University.

The hour-long talk gives an overview of the role of the Getty Museum and other American museums in the illicit antiquities trade. At minute 49 the talk turns to WikiLoot, an effort to harness technology to expose the illicit trade. A Q&A follows.

Marion True and the Getty Museum’s Almagia Vase

In 1986, former J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True recommended the purchase of an attic cup from Edoardo Almagia, the antiquities dealer now under investigation by Italian authorities for allegedly trafficking in looted antiquities.

True was offered the red-figured cup attributed to the Marlay Painter in New York City, where Almagia was based, according to Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig. It was in fragments at the time. The board of trustees approved the purchase for $7,500, and the restored cup is now on display today at the Getty Villa.

JPG 86.AE.479

The attic cup is not listed in the Getty’s online collection, but was published in the 1987 edition of the museum’s acquisition journal, shown at right. The journal lists the cup’s provenance as “New York art market.” Hartwig added that it “was said to have been bought in Switzerland, of Southern Italian origin.”

The cup is the only acquisition from Almagia in the Getty’s collection, Hartwig said.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Princeton University Museum of Art have recently returned hundreds of objects and fragments purchased from Almagia, whose criminal investigation is on-going. Hartwig said Italian officials have not asked about the Getty’s cup.

Transparency check: Dallas, Tampa, the Met and now the Getty have all been forthcoming about their acquisitions from Almagia. We have not received a response to our Feb 3 inquiries to the San Antonio Museum of Art or the Indiana University Museum, where Almagia objects have also been traced. Princeton University has likewise not responded to our request for additional information about their recent return of dozens of objects to Italy. The Boston Museum of Fine Art says it is now compiling information about Almagia acquisitions for us.

The Met’s Von Bothmer Collection May Be Evidence In Princeton Criminal Case

Former Met antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer

The dozens of vase fragments that the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned  to Italy last month came from the private collection of its former antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer. They were sent to Italy to be used as evidence in the possible criminal trial of antiquties dealer Edouardo Almagia, a Met spokeswoman said.

Von Bothmer acquired his massive personal collection of ancient vase fragments — as many as 15,000 in all – outside of his official duties at the Met, a practice generally frowned upon in museums because it creates a conflict of interest for curators. When von Bothmer died in October 2009, he bequeathed the collection to the Met, which accepted the donation “with the express approval of the Italian Ministry of Culture,” said Met spokeswoman Elise Topalian.

Dietrich von Bothmer

The massive study collection, which has not yet been accessioned or cataloged, includes Greek, Etruscan, and South Italian pottery. “The overwhelming majority of pieces date from the sixth through the fourth century B.C. The core of the collection consists of black-figure and red-figure fragments representing a wide range of Athenian vase-painters and potters as well as of subjects,” Topalian said in an email. “The size of the study collection is such that the accessioning/cataloguing process will be complicated  and lengthy.  The end result will be a database that can be used as a shared resource for research, publication, and display.”

With his photographic memory, von Bothmer had a remarkable talent for spotting fragments missing from Greek vases in collections all around the world, and would often donate his fragments to make those vases more whole. But Italian investigators took a different view of his activities: many of the vase fragments were the product of illicit excavations, they believe, and von Bothmer’s donations seeded the American market with loot.

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

As former Getty antiquities curator Marion True described in a 2001 deposition, once a museum had several pieces of an important vase, antiquities dealers would charge increasingly higher prices for the remaining fragments, in effect extorting museums. In that same deposition, True confided that von Bothmer had shown her the precise location where the museum’s prized vase, the Euphronios krater, had been looted in Italy.

Von Bothmer was a client of Almagia for many years, Topalian said. The fragments von Bothmer obtained from the dealer were returned to Italy “to serve as evidence in the investigation and possible trial of Edoardo Almagia.”

Princeton Museum antiquities curator Michael Padgett

Almagia is the antiquities dealer and donor to the Princeton University Art Museum who, along with Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett, is under investigation by Italian authorities for trafficking in looted antiquities. As we reported earlier, the Princeton museum also returned 160 objects and fragments to Italy last month, several of which have been linked to Almagia.

The returns from the Met and Princeton are the first signs of recent activity in the Italian investigation of Padgett and Almagia, which has been going on since at least 2006, when Almagia’s New York apartment was raided by US Customs officials. They may be used as evidence in another criminal case like that of Marion True, which ended in 2010 with no verdict when the statute of limitations expired.

In a Jan 20 press release, Italy’s Carabinieri art squad described the seizure of “copious documentation with photographic material pertaining to sales and loans made ​​by [Almagia].” Using those documents, Italian investigators say they have traced works from Almagia to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Cleveland Museum of Artthe Dallas Museum of Artthe San Antonio Museum of Art; the Toledo Museum of Art; the Tampa Museum of Art; the Indiana University Art Museum, according to the New York Times.

NOTE: Princeton and the Met gave different figures for the number of objects returned than those cited earlier in the week by Italian authorities. Princeton said it returned “six works,” while the Italian release described 160 objects and fragments coming from the museum. The Met said it had sent back “20 fragments (or groups of fragments)” while Italy put the number at 40. The numbers likely reflect different ways of tallying incomplete objects and efforts on all sides to spin the significance of the returns.

SPEAKING OF SPIN: Princeton University has released a statement about the returns. The statement calls the returns evidence of “the museum’s history of successfully resolving ownership claims for works of art in its collections.” Another reading: they’re evidence that the museum — after revising its acquisition policy in 2006 and returning eight antiquities in 2007 — has still not resolved questions about its possession of looted antiquities.

The release says the returns to Italy were initiated by the University after “an internal University analysis related to several items in the museum’s collections.” That analysis has not been released publicly and Princeton is silent about the link to the on-going investigation of Almagia and Padgett, the museum’s antiquities curator. Our request for additional information has not been answered. We hope Princeton will be more forthcoming in the future.

New Wave of Returns: Hundreds of Looted Antiquities Recovered from the Met, Princeton and Others

On Jan 20, the Italian art squad announced the return of more than 200 antiquities from US museums, companies, collectors and dealers — all the product of illegal excavation or theft.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned forty pieces belonging to a deceased private collector who has been identified as the museum’s former antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer. Von Bothmer was known to have a large private collection of vase fragments and was fond of reuniting these fragments with vases in known collections. Fabio Isman reports that several of the returned fragments match vases already returned by American museums, including the Getty’s Onesimos kylix, which was potted by the famous Euphronios.

Question: What of the rest of the von Bothmer collection and his considerable personal archive, which no doubt contains a fascinating history of the illicit antiquities trade over the past 50 years? Is it, as this return suggests, in the possession of the Met, and will its contents be made public?

Princeton University Art Museum returned 170 objects and fragments, including: an askos-shaped talus; two statues of women, including one playing a tambourine and the other a lyre; a white pithos with red figures representing animals;  and 166 fragments from vases and architectural elements. The returns appear to be related to the investigation of Edoardo Almagià, the Princeton alum and antiquities dealer who, along with Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett, are targets of an investigation by Italian authorities.

The release states [via Google translation] that the objects “were identified in previous surveys conducted by the [Carabinieri] of the possessions of an Italian-American citizen, resident of New York, who has been the subject of the seizure of numerous archaeological finds, in New York and Rome, and copious documentation with photographic material pertaining to sales and loans made ​​by him.” These seized documents have allowed investigators to trace looted antiquities to prestigious American museums like the Met and Princeton, the release says, adding that the Carabinieri “have thus established, irrefutably, the origin of the objects from illicit excavations made ​​in Italy.” Works from Almagia have also been traced to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; the San Antonio Museum of Art; the Toledo Museum of Art; the Tampa Museum of Art; the Indiana University Art Museum, The New York Times has reported.

Question: It appears we can now add the Almagia Archive to the trove of documents, photographs and objects that Italian investigators have seized from antiquities dealers Robin Symes, Robert Hecht, Gianfranco Becchina and Giacomo Medici. Given that only Medici has been convicted in Italian court, will these archives, which provide an unprecedented record of the illicit trade, ever be released publicly by Italian authorities?

Princeton and the Met have not yet acknowledged the returns. We’ll post details when they do. In response to a previous request for information, Princeton Museum spokeswoman Cass Cliatt took pains to distance the museum from the Padgett/Almagia case: “The[re] were not and have not ever been any allegations against the University related to the current investigation, and the Italian authorities at no point contacted the University about the current investigation. Great care should be taken about implying a connection.” It is not clear how a criminal investigation into the museum’s curator and a major donor (and alum) have nothing to do with the museum, and these returns only raise further questions. We’ve asked Cliatt for more information and will post it here when it comes.

Other returns announced in the release:

Humana, a Fortune 100 health insurance provider, returned two statues that had graced the lobby of its Louisville headquarters. The first, a second century sculpture depicting the goddess Fortuna, was stolen in October 1986 from an opera house in Rome. The second, a first century marble statue, was illegally excavated in Lazio, Italy and has been linked to the convicted antiquities trafficker Giacomo Medici. The release says Humana acquired the statues in 1984 from a New York Gallery and cooperated fully with Italian investigators.

A New York antiquities dealer has returned a bronze statue known as the Venus of St. John Perareto, which was stolen from a museum in Rimini in 1962. UPDATE: Jerome Eisenberg of Royal-Athena Gallery in New York confirms that he is the dealer. In an email, he said he bought the small Venus from an unnamed dealer in Freiburg, Germany in 1982 and was offering it for $22,500.

An ancient parchment stolen from Bari was identified and returned with the help of FBI officials in Chicago. And bronze grave goods from the first century were returned “a genuine gesture of respect for the Italian people” by contemporary artist Edward Giobbi, who had inherited them from his father.

Hat-Tip: David Gill at Looting Matters first brought the returns to our attention.

ALSO: Fabio Isman has a story on the returns in Il Messagero.

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

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

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

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

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

Fall Book Tour: Chasing Aphrodite across the East Coast

Here’s the line up for this week in New York City and beyond. Hope to see you there. To suggest an event near you, please contact us at ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com

October 26th: The National Arts Club in New York City hosts Jason for 6:30pm lecture and book signing. 15 Gramercy Park South. (Members and guests only.)

October 26th: Archaeological Institute of America The Institute’s New York Society will host Ralph for an evening talk about Chasing Aphrodite. Details here.

October 27: Harvard Club of NYC will be hosting us for a lecture, book signing and dinner. (Members only.)

October 28: Beacon Award Dinner. SAFE will host a dinner honoring Jason and Ralph for “their dedication to uncovering the truth” about the role of museums in the illicit antiquities trade. Details here.


October 29: Walters Museum of Art in 
Baltimore. Museum Director Gary Vikan will be moderating a public talk with Ralph, Jason and Arthur Houghton, the former interim Getty antiquities curator and a staunch advocate of collector’s rights. Discussion at 2pm, followed by book signing. Details here.


Chasing Aphrodite events in October: NYC, Philly, Princeton, Rutgers, Baltimore and more

Next month we’ll be heading East for several lectures and book events. Please help us spread the word:

October 17th: Rutgers University. The university’s program in Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies (CHAPS) will host us for a talk about Chasing Aphrodite. Open to the public. Details here.

October 19th: Princeton University. The Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, will host us for a discussion. Open to the public. Details here.

October 20th: University of Pennsylvania will host us for a 12:30 pm lecture at the Penn Museum’s Cultural Heritage Center.

That evening at 6pm, Penn Law and the Museum will host us for a discussion on the illicit trade with Robert Wittman, former head of the FBI’s art squad and author of “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.” Open to the public. Details here and here.

October 24th: New York University. 

NYU’s Department of Classics will be hosting us for an evening chat. Details TBA.

October 25: The National Art Club in New York City hosts us for a lecture and book signing. Details here.

October 26th: Archaeological Institute of America The Institute’s New York Society will host us for an evening talk about Chasing Aphrodite. Details here.

October 27: Harvard Club of NYC will be hosting us for a lecture, book signing and dinner. (Members only.)

October 28: Beacon Award Dinner. SAFE will host a dinner honoring Jason and Ralph for “their dedication to uncovering the truth” about the role of museums and the illicit antiquities trade. Details here.


October 29: Walters Museum of Art in 
Baltimore. Museum Director Gary Vikan will be moderating a public talk with Ralph, Jason and Arthur Houghton, the former interim Getty antiquities curator and a staunch advocate of collector’s rights. Discussion at 2pm, followed by book signing. Details here.

We also have some exciting events in Southern California lined up for November:

November 2: Chapman University. The Department of Art and Chapman Law School will host Jason for an evening lecture and book signing. Details TBA.

November 12: An Insiders Tour of the Getty Villa. Jason will lead a tour of the Getty Villa, discussing the Getty’s origins, the highlights of its controversial antiquities collection and its recent collaboration with Italy. Organized by SAFE Tours. Details TBA.

November 18th: Jonathan Club in LA. (Private event.)

Hope to see you at one of these. To suggest an event near you, please contact us: ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com

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.”

As part of our Hot Documents series, we’ve posted the entire FBI file here.

Frel was born in Czechoslovakia 1923 as Jiri Frohlich to a Czech father and Austrian mother, the FBI records show. (The family changed the surname to Frel in 1940s, possibly to hide Jewish roots.) Frel entered the United States in 1969 as a visiting scholar at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies. The Institute had long been an intellectual home base for leading scholars, including Albert Einstein.

After a year at the Institute, Frel was granted political asylum with the help of lawyers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he had begun working as an research associate in the Greek and Roman Department under Dietrich von Bothmer. Interestingly, Frel cites additional assistance from George Kennan, the former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union and a leading historian at the IAS.

During an interview with FBI agents in September 1971, Frel was “extremely cooperative,” the records show. Frel denied ever being a spy but he admitted to providing Communist government officials with the names, background information and psychological assessments of those he met on his scholarly travels throughout Europe during the Cold War. “He stated that while he was never aware of this information being used for intelligence purposes, he often suspected that the Chechoslovak [sic] Intelligence Service reviewed copies of this form,” the report notes.

The FBI seemed particularly interested in Frel’s ties to his mentor at Charles University, a woman whose name is redacted in the FBI file. We shared the FBI file with an expert on academic life under Communist Prague, UC Berkeley Associate Professor John Connelly, who was able to identify the woman as Ruzena Vackova,  a professor of classical architecture in Prague who was condemned to 22 yrs. prison in 1952.

According to Connelly, Vackova was one of the few in academia to speak openly against the Communist regime and was the only professor in Prague to march with student protesters. In Connelly’s book “Captive University,” he describes Vackova telling a group in March 1948, “…if a criteria for dismissing these students was participation in these demonstrations, then I would like to share their fate.” (p.194) Vackova spent 16 years in prison and her dissent continued after her release, Connelly told us in an email.

“She was an extraordinary, outstanding person,” he said.

The FBI had picked up on whispers that Frel may have been a Communist agent who turned Vackova in to the authorities. “Since he was one of her protégés at Charles University in Prague, a rumor began to spread of which he was aware, that he had somehow cooperated with the Communist government in her demise,” the report notes.

Frel denied the claim and railed against the Soviet overlords in his Czech homeland, saying he “vehemently disagrees with the Communist regime.” Yet the curator also volunteered (we imagine somewhat sheepishly, but the bland FBI prose doesn’t say) how he cultivated the regime’s approval by once applying for the Communist party. Frel said he applied “to keep his position at the university,” and was rejected because of his incompatible political views.

Connelly believes that it is unlikely that Frel had any role in Vackova’s arrest. “He was probably a conformist (like the overwhelming majority) who tried to anticipate the will of the regime,” Connelly wrote to us. Few who knew him at the Getty would think of Frel as a conformist, but during his years there he certainly showed a flare for telling those in power what they wanted to hear while doing what he damn well pleased.

Espionage allegations aside, the Frel file is a fascinating study of a complicated personality. It hints at Frel’s famously chaotic love life. More importantly, it demonstrates how adept the charismatic polymath, connoisseur and political shape-shifter was at manipulating situations and spinning answers for his own survival. Colleagues at the Getty knew Frel as an Old World snob who constantly complained about America, its broken education system, its obsession with pop culture, its hot dogs and unpalatable mustard. Indeed, years later, when he was caught conducting a massive tax fraud scheme and falsifying provenance for million-dollar fakes at the Getty, Frel left America and never looked back. Yet during his 1971 FBI interview, the reporting agent noted how Frel gushed that “he considers the United States to be in his words ‘a great and good country.”

The story told by the documents is not complete: 10 pages were redacted, citing exemptions for national security and privacy. But it’s clear the FBI closed its case in 1971, concluding Frel had no ties to foreign intelligence services. Frel died in Paris on April 29, 2006.

As for Houghton and his ties to the CIA, the rumors were not far off. Before coming to the Getty in 1982, he had spent a decade working for the State Department, including time in its bureau of intelligence and research as a Mid East analyst. Houghton was fond of cultivating his image as a man of mystery. In truth, he had burned out on the diplomatic bureaucracy and chose a career that brought him closer to his long time passion — ancient coins. Houghton remains active in the field to this day.