Tag Archives: book review

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.Marion True

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.

Marion True: Did the good outweigh the bad?

In archaeologist Malcolm Bell’s review of Chasing Aphrodite in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, he echoes our premise that museums have destroyed our knowledge of the past by fueling the trade in looted antiquities. “A fabric of lies was woven around artifacts whose real history was suppressed or unknown,” Bell writes.

But controversially, Bell also suggests we “undervalue” True’s role as a reformer of the illicit antiquities trade, concluding:  “Her contributions far outweigh her mistakes, and were I today to be asked to recommend someone to fill a major museum position, she would be the first person to come to my mind.”

One critic has called Bell “a liar,” while another says Bell “has an agenda” but calls his review “informed and informative.”

We’re preparing a response to Bell’s review. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Weigh in with the poll below, and feel free to ellaborate on your answer in the comments section:

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)


Our response to Hugh Eakin’s review in the NY Review of Books

We’ve submitted the following response to Hugh Eakin’s review of Chasing Aphrodite, which was published in The New York Review of Books earlier this month. As you’ll see, we found the review flattering in places, but also curiously littered with contradictions. For those who don’t know him, Eakin covered the antiquities scandals for the New York Times and other publications.

Hugh Eakin’s review of our book Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum (“What Went Wrong at the Getty,” NYROB June 27, 2011) was begrudgingly complimentary in several places, but also curiously littered with internal contradictions and a derisive tone that went unsupported by any argument of substance.

The review opens with a straw man argument. Eakin claims our goal was “to debunk the notion that art museums might have some legitimate reason for collecting art from the ancient past.” This is false. As the book makes clear, we have no objection to museums collecting ancient art — legally. Our aim, clearly stated in the preface, was to show that museums’ laudable goal of preserving and protecting antiquities was undermined by their decades-long reliance on an illicit trade that destroys our knowledge of the ancient world.

Eakin claims we do not support our statement that, by fueling the black market, museums have destroyed more knowledge than they have preserved. On the contrary, we make that case time and again in what Eakin, in his next breath, calls our “almost overwhelmingly detailed account.” There is no better illustration of our case than the object at the center of the book, the Getty’s cult statue of “Aphrodite.” Looted from an archaeological site in Sicily in the late 1970s, the Getty bought it in 1988 despite clear signs it was illicit. Thanks to the pall of scandal that hung over the goddess, it was never subjected to serious scholarly study during its 22 years at the Getty, despite being, in the words of the Getty’s curator, “the single greatest piece of Classical sculpture in this country.” Like much of the ancient art in American museums, the Aphrodite was a mute object of beauty.

Indeed, as our book documents, Getty officials actively avoided knowledge of the statue’s origins, turning down several opportunities to learn more about its history and meaning. Soil found in the statue’s folds sat in vials unexamined for 19 years, despite the initial pleas of the head of the Getty conservation institute. True turned down an opportunity to view photos of the statue before its restoration, despite the possibility that they might clarify the goddess’ true identity. The Getty even refused to obtain missing fragments from the statue from the man they publicly claimed was its original owner. (The case of the Aphrodite is no anomaly, as the Met’s persistent refusal to allow a leading archaeologist to study that museum’s illicit Greek silver service showed.) How to explain this bizarre aversion to the truth at an organization whose mission is the “diffusion of knowledge”? The Getty was so intent on keeping this illicit beauty in Malibu that it was willing, time and again, to sacrifice the truth about her origins. Only after the Getty agreed to return the statue to Sicily, where it now resides, did it invite scholars to begin the arduous process of reconstructing that lost history. As if to underscore the museum’s history of obfuscations, many experts now believe the goddess represents Demeter or Persephone, not Aphrodite.

American museums have contributed important scholarship to the field with projects such as the Corpus Vasorum – a painstaking study of Greek vases advanced by curators at the Met, the Getty, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and elsewhere. But just as often, their public mission to educate has been undermined by their private lust for recently excavated objects. Sadly, there is no similarly detailed record of what was lost as a result. But to suggest, as Eakin does, that the damage done by looting is negligible compared with the scholarly good done by American museums requires some extraordinary contortions. One must also believe that every time a looter sticks a shovel in the ground, he “rescues” a museum-worthy antiquity like the Aphrodite and has no further need to ransack the archaeological site in question. In truth — as has been documented in books and articles going back to Clemency Coggins’ seminal 1969 work “Illicit Traffic of Pre-Colombian Antiquities” — for every discovery of a masterpiece like the Aphrodite, there are hundreds if not thousands of tombs destroyed.

Similar contortions abound in Eakin’s review. He calls our portrait of the Getty “cynical,” but goes on to say that no institution is more suited “to Verres-like scrutiny” than the Getty. He calls Chasing Aphrodite “an important book, but not in the way they intend.” Ultimately, we’re left to speculate about the “quite different interpretation” Eakin thinks can be drawn from the facts we lay out. His only hint comes in his final paragraphs, when he calls American museums’ decision to return more than half a billion dollars worth of looted antiquities “a victory…for the approach endorsed by collecting museums.” That is akin to calling the Battle of Gettysburg a clear victory for the South. The repatriations were a reluctant surrender to overwhelming facts, long denied, that exposed museums’ participation in a market awash in illicit antiquities.

Eakin is critical of the Italians for “waging their battle through the press” but largely omits that he was a frequent beneficiary of such leaks in his own coverage of the scandal for the New York Times and others. (For those requiring recent evidence, see Eakin’s recent scoop in the Times about Italy’s investigation of Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett.*)

Indeed, it was thanks to those scandalous Italian leakers that Eakin was the first American reporter to reveal the scope of the Italian investigation in 2002. But his report missed the key fact – the planned indictment of Getty antiquities curator Marion True. He explains this omission in his review by saying these leaky Italians “could not disclose” their plans for the curator because they “had not yet been made public.” What honorable behavior from the same Italians who Eakin says routinely manipulated the press.

Some of Eakin’s claims are almost laughable. He says, citing no evidence, that we encourage “readers to infer skullduggery in routine museum dealings.” Apparently Eakin finds the bribery, forgery, tax fraud, smuggling and general dishonesty that we document at the Getty – with what Eakin calls a “vast body of internal memoranda, legal briefs, and museum correspondence” — to be routine for the museum world. In truth, unlike Eakin’s review, our research and documentation leaves very little for our readers to infer.

As Eakin notes, our reporting stands out from the other coverage (including his own) in going far beyond what the Italian investigation uncovered. The bulk of our book is based on internal Getty documents, not the Italian investigation. Eakin claims, without any factual support, that these documents were “leaked from the office of the Getty’s in-house counsel.” While many of the files we cite were privileged, Eakin is wrong to presume that documents generated by the general counsel’s office must have been leaked from there. These confidential records span four decades and were circulated widely among senior staff, the board and outside counsel. Many were accessible to those far lower on the Getty totem pole. To suggest, as some have, that our reporting is based on leaks from a single “Deep Throat” is silly. As our more than 300 footnotes make clear, there were enough “Deep Throats” at the Getty to round out a Greek chorus.

Eakin particularly ties himself in logical knots when it comes to the book’s central character, former Getty antiquities curator Marion True.

Eakin calls our focus on True “puzzling” — an odd assertion for someone who wrote a 10,000 word profile of her for The New Yorker in 2007. If anything, it is Eakin who thrusts True to center stage, repeatedly comparing her “unprecedented” trial to Cicero’s historic prosecution of Gaius Verres, with True cast as the corrupt Roman governor. He laments True’s unjust treatment, but elsewhere says that like Verres, she faced “a huge body of evidence.” It is only thanks to our reporting that True can be seen in her proper context – that of a curator who proposed questionable acquisitions that were exhaustively debated and approved by a series of superiors above her on the chain of command.

After scolding us for focusing on True, Eakin scolds us for not providing more detail on her criminal trials. Her Italian trial concluded without a verdict in October 2010, after our manuscript was finalized. It was included only thanks to a last minute addition to the epilogue. As with her Greek trials, by the time of its ambiguous conclusion, the Italian case’s significance was largely moot.

As for factual issues, the most Eakin can muster from our 360-page book is a footnote that calls our account of True’s two undisclosed loans “puzzling.”

We reported that she accepted a loan of $400,000 from one of the Getty’s leading antiquities dealers – a clear ethical violation that, after it was confirmed by the Getty’s outside counsel, led to her dismissal. True refused to answer our questions about the transaction, and the dealer in question is dead. His nephew told us — on the record — that the loan was run through an off shore shell company created by a family attorney specifically to obscure the origin of the money – the dealer. Eakin finds the account unpersuasive, noting that True was charged 18% interest by the attorney. He ignores the fact that True was also charged interest by her close friends, collectors Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman, when she borrowed from them to repay the first loan. Eakin is the only reporter to have interviewed Marion True since her dismissal, yet offers no plausible explanation for why an offshore shell company would be needed for an above board transaction; nor why True failed to disclose the loan to her superiors, as clearly required by Getty policy; nor why the Getty demanded her resignation after (belatedly) investigating the transaction. As elsewhere, we’re left to wonder about Eakin’s lack of skepticism on this matter.

As for the second loan True received from the Fleischmans, Eakin is convinced it is being repaid, citing assurances True’s attorney made to Getty counsel in 2006. We’re left to wonder: Did Eakin inquire whether the Getty’s attorneys were satisfied by that assurance? Have True’s payments to her wealthy friends continued since 2006? In an interview this week, Stang acknowledged that during the period he reviewed, “there were some months when she missed the payments.” He said he does not know if True continues to make payments on the loan, which is unsecured by collateral.

These are among the many questions the remain unanswered about Marion True and her time at the Getty. In the years since she was indicted by Italy, we have requested to interview her dozens of times, to no avail. As we’ve noted, the only journalist granted that privilege was Eakin, under unclear conditions. The result was a lengthy and sympathetic account of True’s debacle that curiously failed to answer many of the most central questions that surround her. How could True present herself as a reformer while continuing to pursue the acquisition of looted antiquities? Was the Getty in good faith when it approved the acquisition of the Aphrodite on the very day True and other museum officials learned of an international investigation into its origins (not days later, as Eakin mistakenly wrote in the profile.) Why did True continue to pursue the acquisition of a golden funerary wreath just weeks after concluding it was “too dangerous”? And how could True profess ignorance about the illicit antiquities trade to Italian authorities after concluding as early as 1987 that “the majority of antiquities on the market were likely to have been removed from their countries of origin illegally.”

In the end, True remains – like the statue of an unknown goddess that ruined her – an enigma. The same could be said for Eakin’s review.

* An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Italy’s “indictment of former Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett.” Padgett, who remains a curator at Princeton, has been notified he is the target of an investigation but has not been indicted.

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.