Tag Archives: scandal

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!

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

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

KPFK's Deadline LA

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

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

Deadline LA: Part I

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

Deadline LA Part II

Our exchange with Hugh Eakin at the NY Review of Books

The New York Review of Books has published our exchange with Hugh Eakin about his review of Chasing Aphrodite.

For those who haven’t followed the back and forth: Eakin reviewed the book in June’s NYROB. We posted our response here. The NYROB has now published an abbreviated version of that response with a final comment from Eakin.

We took issue with Eakin’s review, which we found “begrudgingly complimentary in several places, but also curiously littered with internal contradictions and a derisive tone that went unsupported by any argument of substance.” Eakin’s contortions appeared to be colored by his competing coverage of the Getty scandal for The New York Times and his sympathy for former Getty curator Marion True, who he had profiled in the New Yorker.

In Eakin’s final comment, he writes: “Let me be clear: there is nothing grudging about my admiration for their extraordinary revelations about the Getty Museum. Contrary to what they suggest, neither I nor any other reporter could compete with them because their information was, as I wrote, all their own.”

He goes on to cite several facts that he calls “contradictory” to our account of the controversial statue of Aphrodite, which was looted in Sicily and never seriously studied during its 22 years at the Getty. Rather than contradict our account (several of the facts he cites were, after all, first reported by us), they illustrate the contradiction between Marion True’s public and private persona. For example, Eakin cites two cases in which True professed to be open to scientific investigation of the statue’s origin. But he omits True’s statement to the Getty’s own attorneys that the purpose of these activities were “to keep the Carabinieri happy that we’re doing something.” (cited on p. 202 of Chasing Aphrodite)

As we said in our response to another True empathizer, sympathy for True’s plight is understandable, but should not blind us to the troubling complexities of her actions.

Eakin concludes his comment by noting, “The leaking of information to journalists places a burden on them to countercheck the claims being made.” We agree wholeheartedly, and spent the better part of five years seeking confirmation of and context for the leaked information we obtained. They offer a complex and multifaceted account that has not been contradicted. We wish Eakin had taken similar care to paint the whole picture.

We welcome your thoughts on the issues raised in this exchange. Feel free to chip in with a comment via the link below.

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.



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




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

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

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

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

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

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


Dallas Morning News: “A Page-Turner”

In a review published on Sunday, the Dallas Morning News calls Chasing Aphrodite “a fascinating look at the long-standing ‘institutional hypocrisy’ of the acquisition policy of major American Museums.”

“Felch and Frammolino were relentless in their uncovering of the Getty’s various other lapses:  they peer into the infighting and ‘sexually charged Getty culture,’ ferreting out details in the museum’s governance, as well as the extravagant personal use of the Getty’s funds by its most flamboyant director, Barry Munitz, a former chancellor of the California State University system. All of which makes for a page-turner.”

Interesting side-note: the reviewer Kathryn Lang was a docent at the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, which has an impressive collection of ancient art. Lang does not mention the fact, but several suspect dealers in the book helped the Kimbell form its collection. Among the ancient objects at the museum are a Greek vase purchased from Robin Symes (the dealer who sold the Getty its looted statue of Aphrodite) and several objects from Elie Borowski, whose name appears prominently in a chart of the illicit antiquities trade seized by Italian police. (See Chasing Aphrodite, p. 151)


The Missing $50k: Doing the Math on Marion True’s Loan

Former Getty antiquities curator Marion True was asked to resign in 2005 after the authors revealed in the Los Angeles Times that she had accepted a $400,000 loan from an attorney working on behalf of one of the Getty’s principle antiquity dealers. A month later, we reported that True had repaid the loan by borrowing money from her friends Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman — a deal arranged the day after the Getty acquired the couple’s antiquities collection valued at $60 million.

It was these two questionable loans — and not True’s criminal indictment by Italy on charges of trafficking in looted art — that destroyed her career and reputation. True’s failure to disclose the obvious conflicts of interest shocked and silenced many of her most ardent supporters.

As we note in the book, we were unable to find any evidence that True was repaying the unsecured loan from her wealthy friends — her attorney Harry Stang refused to provide us any evidence of payments, despite numerous requests.

But a curious tidbit of new information about this second loan appeared in Hugh Eakin’s recent review, whose faults we have detailed elsewhere. According to Eakin, Stang told the Getty in 2006 that True had re-paid $162,000 of the loan over a six year period, calling her payments “generally consistent” with the loan’s terms.

We were curious how “generally consistent” these payments were, so we did the math.*  True apparently failed to make her monthly payments about 18 times over the six year period reviewed, paying $54,000 less than she owed.

We’ve asked for a response from True’s attorney Harry Stang, who told us earlier this week that her payments showed “substantial compliance” with the loan. He also said he did not know if any payments had been made since early 2006, when he reviewed the payment records. We’ll post any response he provides.

What does it all mean? Perhaps not much. The loan, coming on the heels of the Getty’s purchase of the Fleischman collection, was problematic even if fully repaid. And True clearly made an effort to repay the loan for much of the time before her forced retirement in October 2005, toward the end of the period reviewed by her attorney.

*For those curious, here’s the math on the loan: According to Barbara Fleischman, True borrowed $400,000 at 8.25% over 30 years, backed by no collateral. That would make her monthly payments $3005, or $36,060 annually. Over six years, True should have paid $216,365, which is $54,365 more than the $162,000 she paid according to Stang. $54,365 is roughly equivalent to 18 monthly payments. (NOTE: The book cites True calling it a “20 year mortgage,” but we now believe she was mistaken. If the term was indeed 20 years, and not 30 as Fleischman claims, the missing payments would be substantially greater: $83,394)

PBS NewsHour: Museums and the Risky Business of Looted Antiquities

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

Interview with Madeleine Brand on KPCC

Jason’s interview with KPCC’s Madeleine Brand aired this morning. Madeleine loved the book, saying it “read like an international thriller.” You can listen to the podcast here:

The Madeleine Brand Show on Chasing Aphrodite

VOA on the illicit antiquities trade

VOA's On the Line

Voice of America’s international TV program “On the Line” interviewed Jason Felch about the international trade in illicit antiquities.

You can watch the program here. (The antiquities segment starts at 11:30, about half way through the show.)