'Chasing Aphrodite' And Other Dirty Art World Deals

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:11 pm

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, Frammolino says. 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," Felch says.

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," Felch says. "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 impostors. 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 they 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.

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 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 — simply "because they wanted it," Frammolino says. 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," Frammolino says. "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, Felch says.

"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 archaeological context already, and that we have a duty to rescue them from the market and to preserve them and display them publicly," 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," Frammolino says.

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

"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 whether 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."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

In their new book "Chasing Aphrodite," they describe the allure of breathtaking objects, from an ancient golden wreath to a marble goddess, illicitly traded in back alleys and basement bank vaults. Felch and Frammolino joined us here at NPR West.

MONTAGNE: It seems like people who come into 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. One of the quotes that we like to say about this, is that when the museum director of the Getty was asked what are you looking for in curators. He says one thing: object lust.

MONTAGNE: Which seems to have taken over, in a way, the main character in this scandal, in this drama, that you write about. Tell us about her, Jason Felch.

MONTAGNE: Marion True was the antiquities dealer at the Getty from 1986 to 2005. As curator at the Getty, she wielded the biggest acquisition budget of any museum curator in the country, probably in the world, and 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.

MONTAGNE: In your book you describe this vivid world that binds together grave robbers, patrons, wealthy collectors, some of the world's most revered museums. Give us a thumbnail of that larger relationship, that web.

MONTAGNE: This, I think, gets to the core of what happened in this era. The illicit antiquities trade is kind of the dirtiest corner of the art market, and it brought together highly educated PhD Harvard graduate curators, and you saw them doing business in bank vaults with people who were in the criminal underground. And the question is what were these people doing there? Why were our brightest minds in the museum world dealing with these criminals. And the answer is that they were pursuing objects of beauty. And so they danced this very tricky dance for several years, at the Getty, where they publicly denounced the illicit trade, they decried the looting that their acquisitions fueled, and essentially at the policy that they adopted was: see no evil.

MONTAGNE: Is there one scene that really illustrates what Marion True, and perhaps colleagues, got themselves into, how deep they got into this world?

MONTAGNE: She goes back to the Getty and she says this wreath is far too dangerous for us to be involved with. These men were clearly imposters and I'm sorry we can't have anything to do with this. Three months later, the Getty buys the golden funerary wreath.

MONTAGNE: Because...

MONTAGNE: Because they wanted it. It's a stunning piece. Ralph Frammolino here. When Italy and Greece heard about this wreath, both countries claimed it. Marion True told the Italians that it probably came from Greece. Then she told the Greeks that the Italians think it came from Italy. So that's the game that's played.

MONTAGNE: Curators who want to put antiquities on display do have a high road that they say they are walking. It has to do with saving antiquities that would otherwise be lost. What is that argument and does it really hold up?

MONTAGNE: The truth was, that by buying these objects on the black market, the Getty, and the Met, and the Boston, and other American museums were providing the fuel for looting that was going on across the Mediterranean.

MONTAGNE: Not to give anything away, but the Getty ended up losing.

MONTAGNE: And since then, the museum world has turned around and the good news is the Getty had led the reform, genuine reform; and has also led in a new kind of era of cooperation where the Getty takes loans from Italy now. There's no more of this idea we have to posses 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.

MONTAGNE: And Jason, the goddess, Aphrodite, where is she now?

MONTAGNE: Earlier this year the statue was taken off display, very carefully crated up and sent back to Italy.

MONTAGNE: Right, and here again the ending is a little bittersweet, because as a supposedly illicit object bought off the illicit market, but at the Getty, this Aphrodite was seen by hundreds of thousands of people, probably more than a million over the years. Now it goes back home where it really belongs, and it goes into a small museum that's out of the way, and who knows how many people will see it. So it's really kind of a bittersweet ending, but this was the right thing to do. And now the Getty is without its goddess.

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MONTAGNE: Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch are the authors of "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum." Marion True became the first American curator ever indicted for trafficking in looted art - by a foreign government, Italy. While she always insisted on her innocence, the five year trial ended abruptly without a verdict, because the statute of limitations ran out. Tomorrow, Sicily will be celebrating the return of its long lost goddess at the opening of a gallery in her honor. You can see the Aphrodite and other works of art that were traded illicitly at our website npr.org.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.