Tag Archives: Italy

The Getty’s Bronze? Italian Court Upholds Order to Seize a Getty Masterpiece

UPDATE: Law professor Derek Fincham has commented on Italy’s case: “Using a domestic court to seek the seizure of an illegally exported object from another country has not been attempted before. But Italy has been at the forefront of repatriation strategies. This novel approach could lead to a new legal tool for nations of origin to pursue, if it can convince the Attorney General and a U.S. District Court to enforce this seizure order. The Getty appealed the earlier ruling, and they did so for a reason, this case could set a precedent which would open up museums to seizure suits in the nation of origin.” We’d be interested to hear more legal analysis of this issue.

UPDATE: David Gill notes a comment by the Italian prosecutor saying that the ruling leaves the Getty “little room for maneuver.”

The Getty had a significant setback in the legal case over one of its most important antiquities — the bronze statue of a victorious athlete known as the Getty Bronze.

Here’s Jason’s story in the LA Times. We’ve posted the judge’s complete ruling below.

An Italian court has upheld an order for the seizure of a masterpiece of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s antiquities collection, finding that the bronze statue of a victorious athlete was illegally exported from Italy before the museum purchased it for $4 million in 1976.

The ruling Thursday by a regional magistrate in Pesaro will likely prolong the legal battle over the statue, a signature piece of the Getty’s embattled antiquities collection whose return Italian authorities have sought for years.

“This was the news we were waiting for,” said Gian Mario Spacca, president of the Marche region where the statue was hauled ashore in 1964, in an interview with Italian reporters. “Now we will resume contacts made with the Getty Museum to build a positive working relationship.”

Spacca visited the Getty last year hoping to negotiate an agreement to share the statue. But the Getty has made clear it will fight in court to keep the piece and is expected to appeal the ruling to Italy’s highest court.

“We’ve not yet seen the ruling and won’t comment until we do so,” said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

The long battle over the bronze athlete — one of the few complete Greek bronzes to have survived and believed by some to have been made by Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor Lysippus — is a lingering reminder of the controversy that has surrounded the Getty’s collection of ancient art.

Since 2005, the Getty has voluntarily returned 49 antiquities in its collection, acknowledging they were the product of illegal excavations and had been smuggled out of their country of origin. Hundreds of other objects were returned by other American dealers, collectors and museums. In the wake of those returns, several American museums struck cooperative deals with Italy and Greece that allow for long-term loans of ancient art.

But such agreements have not shielded American museums from further claims that ancient art in their display cases are the product of a black market responsible for the destruction of archaeological sites around the world. In March, Turkish officials revealed they were seeking the return of dozens of allegedly looted antiquities from the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art and Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks.

Most such repatriation claims have been settled without legal action. The dispute over the Getty’s bronze ended up in Italian court thanks to its complicated legal status — an accidental discovery in international waters off Italy’s Adriatic coast.

The statue was most likely lost at sea after being plundered by Roman soldiers in Greece around the time of Christ. (The government of Greece has never asked that the statue be returned there.)

The Getty Bronze, before restoration

In 1964, Italian fishermen found the statue snagged in their nets. They hauled it ashore in the small port town of Fano, buried it in a cabbage field and then hid it in a priest’s bathtub rather than declare it to customs officials, as required under Italian law.

Three brothers and the priest were convicted of trafficking in stolen goods, but an appeals court threw out their convictions in 1970, citing insufficient evidence. At the time, the statue was still missing, and its value was unknown.

In the early 1970s, the statue resurfaced in London, where millionaire oilman J. Paul Getty first became enamored of it.

Getty himself never authorized the purchase of the statue because he had concerns about its legal status, records show. In 1974, Italian officials tried to seize the statue in Germany, where it was being restored, but authorities there would not honor the request.

It was only after Getty’s death in 1976 that his namesake museum purchased the statue, ignoring the legal conditions its founder had placed on the acquisition, according to documents related to the case. The statue was one of the museum’s first acquisitions and was dubbed the “Getty Bronze.”

The bronze was one of dozens of ancient objects demanded by Italy during a lengthy fight with the Getty in recent years over its antiquities collection, much of which was acquired from middlemen who trafficked in objects looted from Italian tombs and ruins.

Talks broke down when the Getty refused to include the bronze on a list of objects it was willing to return. The impasse was broken only when a new criminal case about the bronze was filed in Italian court in 2007, taking it off the negotiating table.

That case has wound through the Italian legal system ever since. In February 2010, a judge ordered the statue’s return, citing the Getty’s “grave negligence” when acquiring a statue. The Getty appealed that ruling to Italy’s highest court, which sent the case back to the judge in Pesaro, not far from the port where the statue was first hauled ashore. The Getty has argued that the seizure order is invalid because no underlying crime has been proved.

If the high court ultimately upholds the seizure order, Italy will still have to convince U.S. authorities to enforce the order and seize the statue from the Getty Villa, where it is on display today in its own humidity-controlled room.

Read the full story of the Getty Bronze here.

Here’s the complete text of the May 3rd ruling:

Arnold Peter Weiss’ Coin Partner and The Getty Connection

A surprising detail emerged while we were reading about Nomos AG, the Swiss coin dealership whose principal, Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss, was arrested on January 3 for felony possession of an ancient coin allegedly looted recently in Sicily.

One of Weiss’ partners in Nomos is Eric McFadden, a senior director of Classical Numismatic Group, one of the world’s leading dealers in ancient coins. McFadden has an impressive resume — he received degrees in Classics from Pomona College and Oxford University before getting a law degree from Harvard University.

But here’s the detail that caught our eye, described in a 2008 profile of McFadden in Pomona College Magazine:

“McFadden began his career in the coin world in the summer of 1977, after graduating from Pomona College with a degree in classics. He volunteered to work on the coin collection of the then fledgling Getty Museum in Malibu. There, he learned that it’s virtually impossible for a new museum to build an outstanding collection of ancient statuary or ceramics, because the finest quality items are not available at any price. However, it is entirely possible for a well-funded museum to collect first-rate ancient coins, which are still regularly sold in the marketplace.”

At the Getty in 1977, McFadden would have been working under Jiri Frel, the rogue Czech antiquities curator who ran the department until he was chased out of town in 1984 amid a tax fraud investigation by the IRS.

As readers of Chasing Aphrodite know, Frel was charming, brilliant and deeply corrupt. A confidential Getty damage assessment later found that Frel had falsified provenances for recently looted antiquities, given inflated attributions to objects in the collection and recommended the purchase of several multi-million dollar fakes in exchange for kickbacks from dealers. (The assistant curator who exposed Frel went on to become a prominent name in the numismatic world as well: Arthur Houghton III, president of the American Numismatic Society from 1994-1999 and currently a lifetime trustee.)

McFadden’s work at the Getty is likely where he met Bruce McNall, the cherubic ancient coin dealer who ran Numismatic Fine Arts, the Beverly Hills gallery on Rodeo Drive. McNall had opened NFA in 1971 and built it into the world’s leading ancient coin dealership, eventually branching out into Classical antiquities (Summa Gallery) with the help of his silent partner, the antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht Jr. Hecht had been selling recently looted antiquities since the 1950s, and his network of loyal suppliers reached deep into tombs across the Mediterranean.

As we recount in Chapter Two of Chasing Aphrodite, it was this crooked triumvirate — Hecht the supplier, McNall the salesman, and Frel the curator — that cooked up one of the largest tax fraud schemes in American museum history. Thousands of recently looted antiquities and coins were donated to the Getty Museum by Hollywood elites looking for a tax dodge. In exchange for donating objects they often never saw, they got tax write-offs at inflated values thanks to appraisals forged by Frel.

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

Robert Hecht

Nomos’ McFadden worked for McNall during those years, first during his summer breaks at Oxford, then for another three years after completing his degree. In an interview this week, McNall recalled McFadden as “a knowledgeable, nerdy kind of guy,” which was helpful. “You don’t want to be looking like a slick car sales man selling ancient art,” McNall said.

McNall said that it was common knowledge that many of the coins he was getting in those days had been recently — and therefore illegally — excavated. “Fresh” coins were were more attractive to buyers. “Any time you find something brand new, it’s sexier,” he said. “Otherwise it’s been around, it’s been seen, and maybe there’s a reason someone else hasn’t bought it…Nobody wants some old broad that’s been around on the town for too long.”

Ironically, McNall thinks that may explain the case of Arnold-Peter Weiss, who was allegedly recorded by a confidential informant bragging that he knew the 4th century BC silver tetradrachm from Katane he was selling was “a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago” in Italy. Such talk is common in the coin trade, said McNall, but “90% of the time it’s just a sales tool.” McNall also finds to be credible the rumor circulating in the coin world that one or more of the coins Weiss was offering for sale may have been fakes.

McNall, who no longer trades coins but still follows the market,  sees parallels to today’s coin market and that of the late 1970s, when he pitched ancient coins as safe harbor in a troubled economy. Investors “have gotten burned in supposedly safe sources, and they’ve gone back to things like coins. If your other investments hit the fan, you’ve always got these things, which have found a market for the last 2000 years.”

In time, authorities caught up with the triumvirate. McNall got out of the coin business after declaring bankruptcy and spending four years in federal prison for bank fraud. Frel left the country in 1984 amid an IRS investigation into the donation scheme, and died in 2006.  Robert Hecht, 92, has been was on trial in Italy since 2005 for trafficking in looted antiquities until Jan 16th, when his trial ended with no verdict.

Eric McFadden was never, to our knowledge, accused of a crime. He left NFA in the mid-1980s for Harvard Law School, and practiced in Los Angeles for several years before returning to the coin trade and joining CNG in 1990. He apparently maintained his ties to Bob Hecht. Over the years, CNG has sold several ancient coins tied to Hecht, including its 2008 sale of Hecht’s collection of Byzantine coins.

Most recently, McFadden has been a vocal opponent of import restrictions on ancient coins, submitting statements to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee in opposition of restrictions for Greece and Bulgaria, calling them “unworkable, ineffective, and ultimately counterproductive.”

In his letter arguing against restrictions for Greek coins, McFadden wrote,” “…there is no simple way of determining either where or when a coin might have been found before being moved from its find spot.” The Weiss case, which appears to rely on the testimony of an informant, may test that theory.

We’ve reached out to Nomos and McFadden, who lives in London,  for comment and will post any response here.

ALSO: Attorney Rick St. Hilaire has posted a helpful update on the legal case of Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection; U.S. Department of State; Assistant Secretary of State, Educational and Cultural Affairs.

ALSO: David Gill at Looting Matters notes that Nomos AG is a member of  the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) which “has apparently paid $100,000 over the last two years for lobbying services in the US.”

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!

Gary Vikan on Moving Museums Beyond Ownership

In February 2006, shortly after Getty Trust CEO Barry Munitz was forced to resign in the wake of an LA Times expose on his personal excesses with Getty money, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman weighed in with an analysis of the institution’s core problem.

Barry Munitz, former CEO of the Getty Trust

“The Getty, at staggering cost and at little or no obvious benefit to the general public, directed millions to new programs,” Kimmelman wrote, referring to the Trust’s investments in conservation, research and education. Instead, Kimmelman argued the Getty should do what the Met had done a century earlier: spends its money buying A-list objects with the hope that, over time, the museum could catch up with the world’s great collections.

Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters Museum in Baltimore, read the piece and immediately recalled a conversation he had had with Munitz a few years earlier. During a seminar at the Trust, the profligate CEO had proposed a surprising new direction for the Getty, one that flew in the face of critics like Kimmelman:  rather than spending vast amounts buying a handful of masterpieces, why not bring them to the Getty on loan, leveraging the Getty’s conservation expertise for a chance to display world-class art.

Gary Vikan, Director of the Walters Museum

This ” “simple and provocative” idea — moving the museum beyond ownership — stuck with Vikan, and he expanded on it in a rebuttal to Kimmelman that was never published. Here are excerpts of Vikan’s letter, whose ideas have taken on new relevance in the wake of the antiquities controversy recounted in our book:

“Why shouldn’t the Getty, with its spectacular wealth, its enormous prominence among the world’s art centers, and its relative ‘institutional youth,’ challenge the very notion of art acquisition and ownership?” Vikan asked. Such a move would “cut to the heart of the disequilibrium” between artifact-rich but cash poor nations like Italy and the wealthy young museums like the Getty, which have the expertise to conserve works and the burning desire to show them.

Museums “can offer an art experience, with its associated learning and scholarship, without having to own the work of art.” Vikan proposed replacing many acquisitions with a system of “innovative long-term loans derived from partnerships across the divide that separates the cash-rich/art poor from the cash-poor/art rich.”

“Such a visionary reordering of Getty Museum priorities would not only create a shining new model for art museums worldwide, it would remove a troublesome roadblock that would almost immediately open up at least two great opportunities. First would be the the opportunity to form a much stronger, more synergistic community of purpose among the four programmatic components of the Getty Trust under a single, education-centered mission — one wherein the Museum becomes at once the laboratory and showcase for the aspirations and achievements of all that the Getty Trust undertakes….Second would be the opportunity for the Getty Trust to play a leadership role in forging a community of purpose among museums internationally, and in establishing new, transparent models of mutually beneficial partnership….”

“This,” Vikan concluded, “is a vision that could help to re-shape the entire world community of art museums in the 21st century.”

Vikan and Munitz did not invent this vision — others had made similar proposals, notably Max Anderson of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Wolf-Dieter Heilmeyer of the Berlin Museums. Ironically, former Getty curator Marion True emerged as the the greatest champion of the idea before her indictment by Italy. (See our Chap 8.) Still, the vision articulated by Vikan and others was strikingly audacious:  a rethinking of centuries of collecting practices.

Remarkably, five years later, it is a vision that appears more and more like reality, especially at the Getty. A year after Vikan’s letter, the Getty ended its decade-long controversy with Italy over its purchase of looted antiquities and forged an agreement that embraces the key ideas in Vikan’s letter. Subsequent agreements were also struck with the National Archaeological Museum in Florence and the autonomous region of Sicily. In the end, the Getty lost 40 of its most prized antiquities, but has begun receiving on loan prized masterpieces from Italy, some of which had never before left Italy.

Here are a few (click the images for details on the loan):

Chimaera of Arezzo

Agrigento Youth

The Gela Krater

Statue of Ephebe from Pompei

Apollo from Pompei

Mozia Charioteer (coming Spring 2012)

To be sure, the Getty continues to purchase art, and — cautiously — antiquities. But with the growing roster of loans and collaboration, the historically underachieving Getty has also begun to look something like that 21st Century museum that Vikan envisioned. And the Trust’s new CEO Jim Cuno has already signaled that he hopes to continue in this direction.

As we wrote in the epilogue of Chasing Aphrodite: “The new era…is now within sight. It is one in which museums and countries alike will look beyond questions of ownership and embrace, as True said, the “sharing of cultural properties, rather than their exploitation as commodities.”

What are other examples of museums moving beyond ownership? Leave a comment below and we’ll raise them Baltimore, where we’ll be speaking with Vikan at the Walters Museum on October 29th at 2pm. Details 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.

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.

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.)

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.