'Chasing Aphrodite' And Other Dirty Art World Deals

On Tuesday, the archaeological museum in Aidone, Sicily will inaugurate the exhibit of a long-lost but now hard-won antiquity — a stone Aphrodite that was illegally excavated from the region 30 years ago. The ancient statue is one of 40 illicitly-acquired objects that have finally been repatriated to Italy from one of the world's wealthiest museums — the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles.

In award-winning reporting for the Los Angeles Times, journalists Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino exposed the dramatic story of the Getty's underhanded art dealings led by their former antiquities curator, Marion True. From back alleys to basement bank vaults, True got her hands on beautiful objects, from an ancient gold wreath to the stone goddess in question — where Felch and Frammolino got the name of their new book: Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum.

The World's 'Second Oldest Profession'

True isn't the only guilty one, of course. The Getty and many other top American museums are part of a long history of illicit art trade. Looted art has been trafficked for as long as art has been in existence, and Frammolino says this is due to the overpowering effects of antiquity.

"People who come in contact with antiquities — the history of it, the beauty of these antiquities, the thought that maybe somebody great had once possessed this — they lose reason," he tells NPR's Renee Montagne.

In fact, one of the main attributes that the director of the Getty looks for in a curator is object lust, says Frammolino. But for True, that characteristic might have overtaken her. As the antiquities curator of the Getty from 1986 to 2005, she wielded one of the largest acquisition budgets in the country, and perhaps the world.

"[She] used that in a very savvy way to help the Getty build what today is considered one of the most important antiquities collections in the world," says Felch.

But that collection would not be possible without the help of a complex web of grave robbers, patrons, wealthy collectors and the complicity of some of the world's most revered museums.

"The illicit antiquities trade is kind of the dirtiest corner of the art market," says Felch. "It brought together highly-educated, Ph.D. Harvard-graduate curators and you saw them doing business in bank vaults with people who were in the criminal underground."

The Getty Museum's Tricky Dance

It might seem an odd partnership, but the brightest minds in the museum world were driven to deal with criminals in the pursuit of objects of beauty. To account for their illicit dealings, Felch says the Getty adopted a see-no-evil policy.

"They danced this very tricky dance for several years, where they publicly denounced the illicit trade and they decried the looting that their acquisitions fueled," he explains.

In one instance, the Getty knowingly purchased an ancient golden funerary wreath from imposters. A pair of supposed Swiss collectors contacted the Getty in the early 1990s with an offer to sell the wreath. When True met with the gentlemen, it was clear that something was amiss. The wreath, stowed in a cardboard box, was slightly rumpled, and the men did not seem to be who claimed to be: "One very likely has a thick Greek accent, the other is a Serb, and both of them seem somewhat shady," Felch says.

Nonetheless, the wreath — which dates to the time of Alexander the Great and possibly belonged to one of his relatives — was stunning. But True was hesitant to buy it from sources that were clearly illegal. Felch says that she returned to the Getty without it, claiming that they couldn't have anything to do with such a dangerous acquisition.

But just three months later, the Getty did in fact buy it. "Because they wanted it," Frammolino simply explains. Both Italy and Greece had heard about the wreath and laid claim to it, so True played them off each other.

"Marion True told the Italians that it probably came from Greece, and then she told the Greeks that the Italians think it came from Italy," says Frammolino. "That's the game that's played.

The "high" road often taken by antiquities curators — that they are nobly saving what would be otherwise lost pieces — is the core irony at the center of Chasing Aphrodite, says Felch.

"The Getty and other American museums over the last decades have justified the acquisition of these things under questionable circumstances by saying that these poor orphan objects have been separated from their archeological context already and that we have a duty to rescue them from the market and to preserve them and display them publically," he says.

But the truth was that by buying these objects on the black market, these museums were further fueling the looting that was going on across the Mediterranean.

The Road To Museum Reform

It was a duplicitous era in art dealing, but one that is coming to a close. The Getty ended up losing 40 pieces — sparking other museums to proactively return questionable pieces before they, too, faced legal consequences.

"Because of this scandal, the Met, the Getty, the Cleveland Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a leading collector, some dealers — they had to give back more than 100 pieces of some of the best antiquities in North America to the governments of Greece and Italy at the tune of half a billion dollars' worth," says Frammolino.

But the good news is that the Getty has become a leader in a series of genuine museum reforms aimed at correcting past mistakes. Their leadership has paved the way to a new era of cooperation, says Frammolino.

"The Getty takes loans from Italy now," he says. "There's no more this idea we have to possess the art. We can take long-term loans and actually serve the patrons by showing more art and kind of rotating it through our collection."

As for the stone goddess, she was taken off display at the Getty months ago to prepare her for her return voyage to Sicily. But Felch wonders if the ending is as triumphant as it seems.

Even though the statue was supposedly bought off the illicit market, the Aphrodite was seen by more than a million visitors over the years at the Getty, Felch says. Now, back home in Sicily where the statue really belongs, she is on display for a much smaller audience.

"It's really a kind of a bittersweet ending, but this was the right thing to do — and now the Getty is without its goddess." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.