Chasing Aphrodite

Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

Review by Guest Writer Sharon Lorenzo

The byline for this book is “The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum.” This is a seriously written account by two investigative reporters from the Los Angeles Times who spent five years tracking the art acquisitions of the Getty Museum and Foundation. Their due diligence is masterful and terrifyingly detailed. How they were able to get access to the data truly reveals the fact that there is no such thing as privacy in the world of the web and e- commerce.

This book enumerates the triumphs and tragedies that are part of the world of international art collecting. The dates of partage (dividing up found objects) of funded excavations and booty from spoils of war are way behind us. Enforcement of national export regulations and recognition of national patrimony laws by member nations is a continuous legal quagmire. With James Cuno taking the helm at the Getty Foundation, he will now oversee the world’s wealthiest non-profit art organization, and hopefully right the ship to be an example for all of how museums, curators, collectors, and their legal representatives can avoid the skullduggery of the past.

Chasing Aphrodite is also a good read for anyone serving in a fiduciary capacity of a major art institution in this country. The issues in ethical non-profit governance today are broad and vast. How the Getty trustees let their museum leadership flounder into a world of self-dealing, fraud, illegal purchases, and curatorial mismanagement is at the heart of this book. The authors explain the behavior of tomb robbers, middlemen, art police, and the laundering of artifacts through galleries and dealers. They describe this as a world that is “glamorous but not pretty.” In 70 BC noted philosopher and statesman, Cicero, even stated in a public address that the governor of Sicily had thoroughly despoiled and pillaged the province and that its restoration to its previous state was out of the question. The hunt for the statute of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexual rapture, is a modern version of this ancient problem of how one work of art is cut into pieces, laundered from a site to be reassembled and packaged for sale at a price tag of $24 million dollars. Despite numerous warnings from Malcolm Bell, noted archaeologist from the University of Virginia, this limestone goddess was purchased by Harold Williams, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and acting chairman of the Getty Foundation in 1988.

The message of the book is the clarion call for clear rules to the game of art collecting, acquisition and conservatorship. Museums and their parties need to abide by international law and treaties to insure that ownership of the world’s art treasures are safe, secure, and available to all. As scholars have noted, all the Etruscan pots of the world do not need to be in Italy, nor every obelisk in Egypt. But their safe haven and legal ownership needs to be protected from the warp and whim of the rich and famous and the vagaries of illegal excavations. Felch and Frammolino raise these issues for all of us to consider in this well written account of a dark time in the world of artistic leadership.

Chasing Aphrodite at:

The dark side of the art world continues. The New York Times reports that the Wildenstein Gallery in NYC and Paris has been hiding Nazi art works for years in their warehouses – this is going to be another huge story as it unravels.