May 20, 2011
The art museums’ ‘Dirty Little Secret’
If you are looking for an international thriller for your summer reading, or a book about the art world, or a hard-hitting investigative report about law, business and finance, you will find all three in the pages of “Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museums” by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino ( Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $28.00).
I hasten to say the “Chasing Aphrodite” is purely a work of non-fiction about “the museum world’s dirty little secret,” as the authors put it, even though it offers the sizzle and punch of a good novel. Indeed, the book is based on the Pulitzer-finalist investigative reporting of Felch and Frammolino for the Los Angeles Times about the scandals that swirled around the Getty Museum.
The secret that Felch and Frammolino expose is that “museums in America, Europe and elsewhere had been buying recently looted objects from a criminal underworld of smugglers and fences,” in violation of both professional ethics and international law. Trafficking in looted art may be “the world’s second-oldest profession,” as the authors put it, but not until now have we seen in such fascinating detail how some of our most prestigious art museums were complicit in the practice.
Felch and Frammolino point out, too, that the old ways of doing business in the art world changed when “archaeologically rich developing countries” escalated their claims for the return of precious objects that had been stolen long ago by colonial powers or purchased more recently under dubious circumstances. Yet they argue that the “Age of Piracy” truly ended only when the world began to pay attention to what was going on at the Getty — “an international scandal of remarkable proportions.”
As Felch and Frammolino reveal in “Chasing Aphrodite,” those of us who have visited the Getty over the years were unwittingly enjoying looted art treasures, including the “iconic” statue of Aphrodite that gives the book its title. Along the way, we are offered a glimpse of founder J. Paul Getty, who “micromanaged his empire down to two decimal places,” and for whom art-collecting was “a vehicle for Getty’s intense fantasy life.” We are shown how the Getty Museum grew from a private tax shelter housed in Getty’s home in Malibu into the 800-pound gorilla of the art world and, at one point, the scene of “one of the largest museum tax frauds in American history.”
The cast of characters in “Chasing Aphrodite” includes famous and notorious figures in the art world and, especially, the troubled history of the Getty, but the centerpiece of the book is the remarkable story of how the Getty acquired its statue of Aphrodite — a story that allows us to see the inner workings of the literally subterranean world of art smuggling. “Are you kidding?” one visionary Getty staff member said when the statue was first uncrated in 1988. “This thing is a hot, hot potato.”
Soon the “art squad” of the Italian police was on the case, but only many years later were they able to prove that the Aphrodite had been illegally excavated and exported. Ironically, it was the “aptly named” Marion True, as one of her admirers put it, who advocated for a new and more rigorous acquisition policy in her capacity as a Getty curator. “Curators at other institutions complained that after a decade-long binge,” the authors explain, “the Getty was now acting like a reformed alcoholic, trying to shame everyone else into sobriety.” But True herself was later charged with conspiring to traffic in looted art, a case that eventually prompted the return of hundreds of questionable art objects by museums around the world.
The saga that unfolds in “Chasing Aphrodite” is yet another epic of avarice and greed in an American institution that is perceived as “too big to fail.” Indeed, the excesses that took place behind the closed doors of what the authors call “the $1 billion-plus show palace” in the Sepulveda Pass go far beyond the buying and selling of dubious antiquities: “Charities shouldn’t be funding their executives’ gold-plated lifestyles,” complained one critic of the Getty. Yet the authors conclude that “the controversy has had its redemptive effect,” and the tale has a happy ending of a kind, both for Aphrodite and the Getty.
Note: For the sake of full disclosure, I want to add that I have had business dealings with Ralph Frammolino, one of the authors of “Chasing Aphrodite.”