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Chasing Aphrodite – Italy’s attempts to reclaim their cultural patrimony

Another review of Chasing Aphrodite [1] – about the Italian’s hunt for looted artefacts in the Getty Museum.

Washington Times [2]

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Chasing Aphrodite’
By Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 384 pages, illustrated

The 19th century was the golden age of acquisition. European and American collectors, smitten with the lure of antiquities from Greece, Italy and China, spent recklessly to assemble great collections in London, Paris and New York. No one questioned that marbles from the Parthenon would get more careful attention in London than in Athens.

Then the tide began to turn. Italians became restless at the sight of their “patrimony” being exported abroad. In 1939, Italy passed a cultural property law stating that archaeological objects found after that date were the property of the state. In Athens, Greeks demanded the return of the Elgin Marbles.

In 1970, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization brokered a landmark treaty for the protection of cultural objects. The United States and more than 100 other countries signed the agreement, which was designed to restrict the importation of illicitly obtained objects. In effect, the major powers of the world acknowledged that the value of an antiquity lay not just in its beauty but also in its archaeological context.

The new philosophy touched many acquisitive institutions, but none more so than the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Founded in 1953 by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, the Getty had one of the world’s greatest collections of Greek and Roman antiquities. A succession of curators had purchased new finds with little or no inquiry into their origins, and many had come onto the market by way of tomb robbers in southern Italy. In “Chasing Aphrodite,” Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, reporters for the Los Angeles Times, have written a scathing indictment of the “museum industry.” In their words, “For the past forty years, museum officials have routinely violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the UNESCO treaty … buying ancient art they knew had been illegally excavated and spirited out of source countries.”

Curators at the Getty went further. They sought out collectors and urged them to donate objects to the Getty with an assurance that they would receive tax write-offs far more valuable than the art. One “donor” gave the Getty objects for which he had paid $75,000, but told the Internal Revenue Service they were worth $2.5 million. The result was $1.2 million in tax savings. In the authors’ words, “Donations began showing up on the Getty’s books in the names of prominent professionals and some Hollywood high rollers.”

Readers not accustomed to rooting for the IRS may wish to note that it was the threat of a major IRS investigation that led the Getty to end its tax scam.

But there remained the purchase of stolen antiquities. The Italians took the matter seriously and had their eye on Marion True, the Getty’s prickly curator of antiquities. On one hand, Ms. True was a reform-minded custodian who had urged more transparency in the art trade. On the other hand, as curator she had made numerous purchases of doubtful provenance, including an iconic statue of Aphrodite that showed every sign of having been plundered from Greece. The Italian prosecutor contended “that Dr. True knew, or should have known, that many objects acquired by the Getty were illegally excavated from Italy.”

Moreover, the Italians had evidence of a conspiracy: That Ms. True had used a private collection – one that was destined to be donated to the Getty – as a means of laundering items stolen from Italy.

On April 1, 2005, Ms. True was indicted on charges of trafficking in looted antiquities and ordered to stand trial in Rome. She became the first American curator to be tried on criminal charges. The Getty attempted to have the trial quashed, offering to return 24 objects, including Aphrodite, if the case was dropped. But the Italians were determined to make an example of Marion True.

The result was more than two years of hearings that exposed the squalor of the antiquities trade before a deal was finally reached. The Getty would return 40 of the 46 artifacts sought by Italy, including Aphrodite. The authors write, “After nearly ten years of denial, double-talk, rationalizations, finger-pointing, hand-wringing, second-guessing, defiance, and, finally, resignation, the Getty’s antiquities nightmare was over.”

There remained the matter of Ms. True. After five years of trial, she was excused without a verdict in October 2010 on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. Professionally, however, she was ruined. Her undoing, Mr. Felch and Mr. Frammolino write, “forged a peace between collectors and archeologists, museums and source countries.” Whether such a peace is lasting remains to be seen, and readers must decide for themselves whether society is best served by an artifact buried and forgotten in Italy, or the same object cleaned and illuminated in a New York penthouse.

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.