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CHASING APHRODITE by Jason Felch

CHASING APHRODITE

The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum

By Jason Felch (Author) , Ralph Frammolino (Author)

Pub Date: May 24th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-15-101501-6
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Intricate exposé of sordid acquisition practices at prestigious museums.

Los Angeles Times reporters Felch and Frammolino covered long-simmering misdeeds at the J. Paul Getty Museum, receiving a 2006 Pulitzer nomination and fueling an international controversy. The governments of Greece and Italy have become increasingly aggrieved over the self-serving philosophies that have allowed institutions like the Getty to duck thorny issues of cultural patrimony regarding obviously looted precious objects: “As in a Greek tragedy, the Getty sowed the seeds of its own disgrace. For years it built an enviable collection of antiquities by turning a blind eye to their origins.” The authors document how, particularly in the 1970s and ’80s, imperious administrators bought rare antiquities freely from well-connected middlemen who presented questionable paper trails, and encouraged wealthy supporters to commit tax fraud through donations of lesser objects, while enjoying an institutional culture of sexual peccadilloes and personal perks. Yet, during the last 20 years, the tide of public and legal opinion gradually turned against the old-line museum philosophy of “optical due diligence,” as aggrieved archaeologists and source countries questioned such acquisitions as the titular statue, an enormous piece persistently rumored to have been looted from Italy in 1979. The central figure throughout the book is former Getty antiquities curator Marion True, whose story also carries the weight of classical tragedy. She rose from humble beginnings to a position of academic influence and personal wealth, in part by simply following the model of willful institutional blindness established by her predecessors regarding ethically suspect acquisitions. Even as True was alienating her peers by advocating new approaches with respect to source countries, Italian investigators were building a case against her that proved a few dealers had coordinated looting for decades, making clear the collusion of True and the wealthy donors she’d cultivated. The authors deftly control their complex narrative and large cast, only occasionally resorting to purple prose.

An engrossing tale of greed and malfeasance within the uppermost strata of high culture.