Review: Chasing Aphrodite

Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum
Jason Felch & Ralph Frammolino
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$28.00, hardcover, 384 pages
Release date: May 24, 2011

Museum visitors will marvel at the brush stroke on a painting and admire the evidence of a sculptor’s hand. Pieces from the ancient world may provoke questions about how they managed to survive so long and how well they held up to centuries of weather and human expansion. Few visitors question how those pieces arrived in the museum.

If those questions occur, the assumed answer is the museum bought the pieces from another museum or private collection. Maybe the museum sponsored an archaeological expedition. Questions don’t tend to go further than that, but the answer to where a museum piece came from may have its truth in shadowy backroom deals, forged documents and smuggling rings.

The surprisingly hard-to-put-down Chasing Aphrodite traces how the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles built its impressive collection of classic artifacts along with its impressive reputation, only to see it crack in the wake of accusations of participating in an antiquities black market.

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino build the book from their initial articles in the Los Angeles Times. The reports were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Journalism after the articles exposed the Getty and other museums for their roles in questionable collecting.

From the beginning of the book, Felch and Frammolino make it clear this is not a dry look at museums. “The museum world’s dirty little secret came to light amid revelations about pedophile priests in the Catholic Church and widespread steroid use in Major League Baseball,” they write. Two scandals most of their readers would have been hard pressed not to notice in the news. News about the Getty and other museums may have not garnered attention among people outside the art world at first, but placed into context with two other scandals, the Getty scandal acquires a new relevancy for most people.

As Chasing Aphrodite follows various pieces of art from discovery and looting through to public unveilings at museum galas, the authors introduce a plethora of characters. Equal attention is given to ordinary fisherman who pull a bronze figure from the ocean to billionaire J. Paul Getty himself and on to the museum personnel and Italian police investigators. The characters are real people, and readers walk away with a sense of the conflicting ambitions of each.

Even passages about the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and changing international law about importing and acquisitioning antiquities that could, in other works, be skipped over to get back to the “good parts,” keep the reader’s interest.

The Aphrodite statue serves as the touchstone throughout the book. The statue is believed to have been looted from Sicily, and experts now question whether it depicts the goddess of love or, through the convoluted family ties of Greek and Roman mythology, her cousin Persephone. Spoiler alert for those who didn’t follow the original articles or ensuing publicity: the statue is now at the Aidone Archaeological Museum in Sicily.

Time and again, Felch and Frammolino return to the Aphrodite statue, using her journey to follow the trail of black and grey market dealers and the surprisingly high propensity for some museum officials to forge documents of origin and even personally smuggle artifacts into the United States.

The Italian investigation into the key players undoubtedly took a long time (the book covers years) and was likely repetitive and involved more paper shuffling than action. It’s to Chasing Aphrodite’s credit that the investigation seems lively. Scenes where the key investigators discover photographs and artifacts in a warehouse seem lifted from a movie. A brief mention that two investigators develop a personal relationship heightens the life imitating art atmosphere that permeates the book.

For someone not working in a museum, the descriptions of internal politics and power don’t seem real. Flaws that stand out in fiction as clichés – hubris, narcissism, greed – are real human traits. The jockeying for power at the Getty and need to improve the collection seem to bring out the best and worst of the people involved. Arguments for acquiring questionable artifacts may start off well-intentioned but are overwhelmed by the mounting arguments against. Even then, some museum officials persist in clinging to their old ways more fiercely than before while presenting a public front of protecting the countries of origin. Unlike fiction, villains of the piece aren’t as black and white. The authors make it easy to understand how the collecting process began and why it continued for so long.

Inevitably though, the Getty and other museums had to change their policies. As an Italian archaeological director writes to True, “Do you have any idea how many archaeological sites have been plundered so that a single object can reach the market? How much scientific evidence we have lost? How many other objects have been destroyed? Acquiring from the market is a crime against science and against the cultural and historic patrimony of another country.”


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