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Chasing Aphrodite – calling into question the place museums occupy in our society

Another review of Chasing Aphrodite, The book about the problems of looted artefacts in their collection that have plagued the Getty Museum for the last decade.

Paste [1]

By Chaz Oreshkov
Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
The Art of Looting
Published at 12:32 PM on June 12, 2012

“To me my works of art are all vividly alive. They’re the embodiment of whoever created them—a mirror of their creator’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. They have led eventful lives—pampered by the aristocracy and pillaged by revolution, courted with ardor and cold-bloodedly abandoned. They have been honored by drawing rooms and humbled by attics. So many worlds in their lifespan, yet all were transitory. What stories they could tell, what sights they must have seen! Their worlds have long since disintegrated, yet they live on.”—J. Paul Getty, The Collector’s Choice

Artifacts belong in museums. We know this much from Indiana Jones’ epic words at the beginning of Last Crusade, when he yells (on a sinking ship in the middle of a typhoon, no less) “That belongs in a museum!” to another explorer who wants to keep an artifact for private use.

Indy, a rarely equaled hero whose archetype has knocked some of the dust off archaeology as a career calling, was honorably advocating museums over private collections, looking out for those estimable institutions of the public good.

Well … most times estimable.

Chasing Aphrodite is an unsettling read. It calls into question the unique place museums occupy in our society … and the privilege, admiration, and virtue usually associated with them.

In general, we consider those who fill our museums to be selfless philanthropists, men and women who spend large sums of private money so the public can enjoy rare art and antiquities. These benefactors help us maintain a level of culture in society, a sense of history within mankind, and other such boons of civilization. Some among us can even feel guilty for not visiting museums often enough, a feeling akin to the one arising from failing to visit one’s grandparents.

For such reasons, it hits home when a museum allegedly acts as unscrupulously as a criminal organization (or a Wall Street institution). According to authors Felch and Frammolino in their fascinating book, “white-gloved curators” at the world-famous J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles “did business with criminals.” The authors claim that, in the process, the Getty destroyed far more history than it preserved.

Chasing Aphrodite reads like an overblown thriller. The wealthiest man on the planet, J. Paul Getty, keeps track of his money down to the most trivial daily purchases. His one guilty pleasure? Buying art. Getty actually hates himself for this compulsion, considering it an addiction and a curse. Nevertheless, he succumbs, perhaps because even through his stinginess he can appreciate the significance of the artifacts.

Getty founds a small, eponymous museum in California, mostly for its tax benefits. The museum remains mediocre until Getty dies and bequeaths it $700 million, making the Getty the richest museum in the world overnight.

The museum hires a Communist refugee curator, who comes up with an elaborate scheme that lets his wealthy Hollywood friends receive exorbitant tax benefits by donating antiquities they buy from illicit dealers. As a result, the museum’s basement fills to the brim with random artifacts of uncertain value, none of which have any paperwork of origin.

On the other side of the world, a young Italian investigator on a team of old-timers tries to figure out why artifacts of Italian origin keep popping up all over the world (mostly America, and most often of all at a certain museum in Southern California). He spends months looking over the case files, almost giving up … and then he notices a tiny piece of paper. It turns out to be a sales receipt that cracks the case.

The investigator follows a trail to the warehouse of the largest illicit dealer in Europe, who conveniently has kept Polaroids of every looted antiquity that passed through his building, many of the pieces with dirt still on them—proof they were recently looted.

It all ends in a spectacular trial in Italy and the return of many artifacts, with much embarrassment on the part of American museums.

You simply can’t make this stuff up.

What is a museum, exactly? What is its aim? And why is it structured as it is?

The authors set out to answer these questions, claiming that museums exist as “products of the Enlightenment, brick-and-mortar extensions of Diderot’s Encyclopedie.”

True enough. Museums exist as a real-world version of a history book, a place where knowledge can take on a far more concrete form than in the pages of an encyclopedia.

But the authors of Chasing Aphrodite claim museums also have a dark side, existing as “… the products of colonialism, driven to collect by a sense of cultural superiority that justified the unchecked acquisition of relics from the far reaches of their empires.”

The looting of antiquities presents a significant problem for countries like Greece, Italy and Egypt, which are rich in historical sites. Unique specimens regularly fetch prices in the millions of dollars, which makes digging for antiquities considerably more lucrative than digging for gold, a fact that isn’t lost on both criminal outfits and the locals. Unsurprisingly, the authors make a solid case that the vast majority of artifacts currently on the market have been recently looted.

So why, exactly, is this a problem? After all, does it matter in the end who discovers an artifact, so long as it is discovered and can be displayed for the world to see?

Museums have often made this exact argument to defend their sometimes dubious activities.

The problem occurs in what archaeologists call the loss of context of a looted artifact. An artifact holds value in two ways—its inherent beauty and its historical context. When an artifact—a vase, for example—comes out of the earth at a site, it nearly always comes surrounded by other artifacts, in a specific geographical area. These surrounding details tell us something about the culture that produced the vase, adding to its historical value and general meaning within the context of man’s cultural progression.

All looting is elicit by definition, so looted objects nearly always show up without contextual information. In fact, any mention of the vase’s discovery—say, near the Morgantina archaeological site in Sicily—can directly incriminate looters. It’s why so many artifacts become “orphaned”—left with no information about their provenance. Looting also tends to be quite careless, since large statues are often broken in parts to make their smuggling across borders easier.

If museums abided by current international standards, they would buy nothing that lacks proper history and paperwork. But many truly impressive artifacts that go on the market come without documentation. Museum curators have limited choices. They can wait. Or they can feign ignorance, accepting the lack of provenance.

The authors show that the second option becomes surprisingly tempting, especially when a curator gets a call about a spectacular, one-of-a-kind piece available to no other museum.

The Getty’s Aphrodite statue, for example, proved too magnificent to resist, a masterpiece of truly unique size, execution and preservation. The Getty moved ahead with the purchase despite concrete evidence of the statue’s looted origins, making it the centerpiece of its collection. Incidentally, scholars have since determined that this Aphrodite is more likely a statue of the goddess Demeter—another example of the type of valuable information gained from knowing an artifact’s place of discovery.

The trouble with detecting looted antiquities is simple—there’s rarely proof of any wrongdoing. Sellers and buyers can easily create false paperwork stating that the artifact has been, say, in a private collection in Switzerland for the past 100 years. Museum curators can take these forged documents at face value … or they can create the documents themselves. The burden of proof lies with the source country, which must somehow show conclusively that the item comes from a specific area and that it was recently looted—nearly impossible tasks.

Occasionally, the evidence will be strong enough to warrant a return. But returning art creates a further problem for museums. It sets a precedent of decency, which can encourage more countries to ask for their stolen artifacts. Officials in the British House of Commons explicitly cited this as one reason for not returning the Parthenon Marbles, looted from Greece by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s.

A museum may react more readily to public outrage. In the Aphrodite case, as the Italian trial went on and publicity grew, the Getty, the Metropolitan and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts decided to give back at least those artifacts whose provenance was indisputable. Despite the prominence of this case, art looting generally doesn’t get headlines in the United States, which stands on the side of buyer countries.

Felch and Frammolino keep the pace of their account fast, taking some journalistic leeway to portray the feelings and thoughts of characters at key times, particularly the rising levels of embarrassment that build up through legal proceedings. The book develops almost cinematically, switching between disparate locations as the action builds toward a common end.

Entire careers were made at the Getty, and they were just as easily destroyed. Who knew such discoveries and such excitement lay underneath the museum’s meticulously cultured facade?

Chaz Oreshkov is a graduate student of literature at the University of Chicago. This is his first review for Paste.