Monthly Archives: May 2011

“A story the Getty wants no one to know…”


In a new review, SAFE contributor Senta German describes Chasing Aphrodite as “a story the Getty wants no one to know…told from the inside out.”

“Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino…have assembled an extraordinary array of sources with which they tell a story the Getty wants no one to know: how the museum knowingly purchased looted and fake antiquities, misled foreign governments in their attempts to reclaim stolen property, laundered stolen antiquities through an illegal tax scheme and adopted extraordinarily conservative acquisitions policies while at the same time actively buying from the illicit antiquities market.

“It is a story of the astounding mismanagement of opportunities, resources, human capital and global reputation. Put one way, it is confirmation of the worst many suspected about curatorial caprice and institutional duplicity. Put another way, if you’re interested in issues surrounding the illicit antiquities trade, collectors and the Classical world, you can’t put the book down….

“The documentation Chasing Aphrodite presents regarding just how much curators, general counsel, the museum director and CEO of the Getty trust knew about antiquities purchases is one of the most significant aspects of the book.”

For those who don’t know the organization, Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) is New York-based education and advocacy organization whose mission is to raise awareness about the damage that results from the illicit trade in antiquities. They organize lectures, tours and events on the subject, in addition to hosting a great blog.


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.

NY Post: How the Met dodged a bullet

In Sunday’s New York Post, Ralph describes how the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York narrowly avoided becoming the center of the antiquities scandal that consumed the Getty Museum.

“A few years ago, the world’s richest arts organization became the epicenter of a scandal that, like revelations of steroid use in baseball, exposed a dirty little secret of the American cultural establishment.

Antiquities dealer Robert Hecht, now on trial in Rome, poses in front of the Met's famous looted vase.

It was revealed that the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles, along with other American museums, had long been involved in the black market for looted Greek and Roman antiquities — a trade the museums themselves fueled with multimillion-dollar acquisitions of illegally excavated masterpieces.

To stop the cycle, Italian authorities took aim at the biggest customer, the Getty. A Roman court indicted the Getty’s antiquities curator, Marion True, for trafficking in looted objects. The Getty eventually expelled its most generous living donor, Manhattan socialite Barbara Fleischman, from the board for her involvement in the scandal. And the Getty was made to pay for its crimes by returning 40 of its best antiquities to the governments of Italy and Greece.

But had things gone a bit differently, what is now known as the “Getty scandal” could have very well have been the “Metropolitan Museum meltdown.”

Only timing, luck, and a grudging act of cultural contrition saved the venerable New York institution from taking the biggest fall.”

Read the full story 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.”

Join us at Book Soup on May 31st

This Tues, May 31st at 7pm, Jason Felch will be reading and signing books at Book Soup, a fabulous bookstore on the Sunset Strip.

Join us! Details and directions here.

Chasing Aphrodite on KCRW

Catch Ralph Frammolino discussing the book on KCRW’s “Which Way LA,” hosted by Warren Olney. Guests included Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig and arts blogger Lee Rosenbaum, who called Chasing Aphrodite “an investigative tour de force.”

Listen to the program here.

Tonight: Reading at Barnes & Noble in Thousand Oaks, CA

Barnes and Noble Thousand Oaks

To celebrate the official release of Chasing Aphrodite, the authors will be reading and signing books at Barnes & Noble in Thousand Oaks, California on Tuesday.

The event was organized by Sandy Stelle, B&N’s #1 Bookseller last year. Sandy is a big fan and encouraged us to write the book years ago. We’re grateful for her support and the help of the entire B&N staff there.   

What: Reading and Signing.

Where: 160 South Westlake Boulevard, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362

When: 7pm

New Reviews: “gripping,” “riveting” and “slickly written.”

The Economist calls it a “slickly written and well researched detective story.”

Sunday’s Los Angeles Times review calls it “a gripping narrative spiked with vivid character sketches,” and “a riveting cautionary tale.”

In the Jewish Journal, Jonathan Kirsch calls it “another epic of avarice and greed in an American institution that is perceived as “too big to fail.”

“If you are looking for an international thriller for your summer reading, or a book about the art world, or a hard-hitting investigative report about law, business and finance, you will find all three in the pages of Chasing Aphrodite,” Kirsch writes.

Chase Over: Aphrodite Crosses Final Finish Line

In Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times, Jason Felch reports on the ceremony officially inaugurating the Getty’s controversial statue of Aphrodite in its new museum home in Aidone, a small hill town in central Sicily.

“A chaotic scrum of politicians, journalists, townspeople and two Getty officials crowded into the small museum in a former Capuchin monastery to see the 7-foot statue of limestone and marble, which the Getty bought in 1988 for $18 million despite signs that the statue had been recently looted and smuggled out of Italy.”

The statue’s return to the land where it was believed to looted from more than 30 years ago has ignited dreams of economic revival in Aidone, where ironically many locals supplement their meager incomes by plundering and selling off ancient artifacts from nearby Morgantina, one of the Mediterranean’s most productive archaeological sites.

The limestone-and-marble goddess remained impassive in the face of the chaos and pomp of the day. She was celebrated by hundreds of citizens who braved the cold drizzle to hear two bands dressed in elaborate uniforms and speeches by local officials sporting with red, white and green sashes. Inside the Aidone museum, a children’s choir serenading politicians. Celebrants were rewarded with free Aphrodite postcards, Aphrodite t-shirts and Aphrodite note pads. Across from the museum, a Aphrodite souvenir shop was doing a brisk business in imitation Aphrodite Greek vases, Aphrodite dishes and Aphrodite cigarette trays.

Read the full story here.

Chasing Aphrodite’s European debut

On the eve of Aphrodite’s official return home, co-authors Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino gave a presentation at a Sicilian university tracing the odyssey of the ancient statue from illicit excavation to controversial debut at the J. Paul Getty Museum and its symbolic role in the recent scandal that rattled the American art establishment.

“Felcholino,” as we were once dubbed by an arts blogger, were guests of Kore University in Enna, about 30 kilometers from when the Getty’s Aphrodite was dug up nearly 30 years ago. More than 150 students, faculty and local public officials attended the May 16 event, which served as the official debut for the book in Europe.

We recounted oil tycoon J. Paul Getty’s “addiction” to ancient art and how his eponymous museum inherited both his money and compulsion. Its $18 million purchased of the cult statue signaled the museum’s foray into an art market awash in looted artifacts.

The Getty’s voracious purchase of dodgy material led to the 2005 criminal indictment of its antiquities curator by a Roman court, triggering a scandal that revealed to what extent American museums had lied about patronizing the black market.

The presentation was made a day before the Fifth Century BC statue was officially inaugurated in its own room of the nearby Aidone museum. The event was covered by local and national Italian media, including one of Italy’s largest television networks.

The most popular question: Did they ever feel their lives were in danger from the Mafia?

“Even those we talked to, those considered ‘dangerous people,’ were gracious in the finest Italian tradition,” said Ralph.

Jason added: “We never had any direct threats but then again sometimes your life can be threatened and you won’t know about it.”

Afterward, we were treated to a sneak peekof the statue in its new home and a tour of the Morgantina dig site, form where many now believe the goddess was looted.