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

Hardcover | May 24, 2011

byJason Felch, Ralph Frammolino

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In recent years, several of America's leading art museums have voluntarily given up their finest pieces of classical art to the governments of Italy and Greece. The monetary value is estimated at over half a billion dollars. Why would they be moved to such unheard-of generosity?The answer lies at the Getty, one of the world's richest and most troubled museums, and scandalous revelations that it had been buying looted antiquities for decades. Drawing on a trove of confidential museum records and frank interviews, Felch and Frammolino give us a fly-on-the-wall account of the inner workings of a world-class museum and tell the story of the Getty's dealings in the illegal antiquities trade. The outlandish characters and bad behavior could come straight from the pages of a thriller-the wealthy recluse founder, the cagey Italian art investigator, the playboy curator, the narcissist CEO-but their chilling effects on the rest of the art world have been all too real, as the authors show in novelistic detail.Fast-paced and compelling, Chasing Aphrodite exposes the layer of dirt beneath the polished facade of the museum business.

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From the Publisher

In recent years, several of America's leading art museums have voluntarily given up their finest pieces of classical art to the governments of Italy and Greece. The monetary value is estimated at over half a billion dollars. Why would they be moved to such unheard-of generosity?The answer lies at the Getty, one of the world's richest a...

JASON FELCH is an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times . In 2006 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting for exposing the role of the J. Paul Getty Museum and other American museums in the black market for looted antiquities. His work has also been honored by Investigative Reporters and Editors,...
Format:HardcoverDimensions:384 pages, 9 × 6 × 1.32 inPublished:May 24, 2011Publisher:Houghton Mifflin HarcourtLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0151015015

ISBN - 13:9780151015016


Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Circuitous Paths of Some Antiquities Although quite good, this book is not entirely what I was expecting. I was not aware of the fact that ancient artefacts are continuously “excavated” from ancient sites by looters who market them so that they ultimately find their way into private collections or even world famous museums. The book’s main focus is the Getty Museum and its staff over the years since J.P. Getty’s death in 1976 and how the museum acquired some of its ancient works of art - in particular, items with unclear provenances and, therefore, possibly looted and smuggled from their countries of origin. Fortunately, as is pointed out in the book, much has been done in recent years to discourage such clandestine activities and many looted antiquities have been returned to their countries of origin. The writing style is lively, friendly, detailed and often quite engaging. As an ancient history/archaeology buff, I enjoyed the few discussions pertaining to finding ancient relics and on the techniques used to verify their provenances and authenticities. I was also engrossed by the recounting of some of the legal issues, particularly those involving the Getty’s curator Marion True. However, my eyes glazed over when there was too much lengthy discussion on some of the museum’s internal political wrangling, questionable expenses and various other convoluted corporate issues – all matters that were rightly presented in a book such as this. As a result, I suspect that those who would enjoy this book the most are not so much ancient history/archaeology buffs like me but more likely those who like to see the big picture as to how some antiquities were (and may still be) acquired by some major museums along with all the associated issues.
Date published: 2011-09-23

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1The Lost Bronze In the pre-dawn light of a summer morning in 1964, the 60-foot fishing trawler Ferrucio Ferri shoved off from the Italian seaportof Fano and motored south, making a steady eight knots alongItaly’s east coast. When the Ferri reached the peninsula of Ancona,Romeo Pirani, the boat’s captain, set a course east-southeast, half waybetween the dry scirocco wind that blew up from Africa and the coolerlevanti that swept across the Adriatic from Yugoslavia. The six-man crew dozed. The sea was glassy, but Pirani knew howtemperamental the Adriatic could be this time of year. Just a fewweeks earlier, a sudden storm had blown across the sea, sinking threeboats and killing four fishermen. Weather was not his only worry.The Second World War had left its mark on the sea and made his joball the more dangerous. Nets hauled up mines and bombs left behinddecades ago by retreating Nazi forces or their American pursuers.The arms of many men in Fano bore scars from the acid that oozedout of the rusting ordnance. As the sun rose, blinding their eyes, Pirani and his crew sippedmoretta, a hot mixture of rum, brandy, espresso and anise, toppedwith a lemon rind and lots of sugar. The strong brew gave the mennot just warmth, but courage. By nightfall, the Ferri had reached itsdestination, a spot in international waters roughly midway betweenItaly and Yugoslavia. The captain knew of a rocky outcropping thatrose from the seabed where schools of merluza, St. Peter’s Fish andoctopus gathered for safety in the summer heat. Other boats venturedfarther east, into the deep waters off the Yugoslav coast, where theyrisked arrest for poaching, But Pirani preferred this hidden shoal.While fishing there meant occasionally snagging the nets on sharprocks, the boat often returned to port full. The crew cast its nets into the dark waters. They fished all night,sleeping in shifts. Just after dawn, the nets tugged, catching a snag. Pirani gunnedthe engine and, with a jolt, the nets came free. As some peered overthe side, the crew hauled in its catch: A barnacle-encrusted object thatresembled a man. “Cest un morto!” cried one of the fishermen. A dead man! As the sea gave up its secret, it quickly became apparent that thething was too rigid and heavy to be a man. The crew dragged it to thebow of the boat. The life-sized figure weighed about 300 pounds andhad black holes for eyes and was frozen in a curious pose. Its righthand was raised to its head. Given the thickness of its encrustations,it looked as if it had been resting on the ocean floor for centuries. The men went about the immediate work of mending the tornnets. It was only later, when they stopped for a breakfast of roastedfish, that one of them grabbed a gaffe and pried off a patch of barnacles. He let out a yelp. “Cest de oro!” he cried, pointing at the flash of brilliant yellow. It’sgold! Pirani pushed through the huddle and looked at the exposed metal.Not gold, he declared, bronze. None had ever seen anything like it. Itmight be worth something. The Ferri’s men made a hasty decision.Rather than turn it over to local authorities, they would sell the figureand divvy the profits. As the Ferri motored back to Fano that afternoon, word came overthe radio that the town was afire with news of the discovery. Thespark had come earlier, when the Captain had mentioned it whilechatting ship-to-shore with his wife. Now crowds had gathered in theport for the Ferri’s return. Pirani cut the engine and waited untilnightfall. By the time the Ferri pulled into port, it was nearly 3 a.m.and the docks were deserted. The crew brought the statue ashore on a handcart, hidden under apile of nets, and took it to the house of Pirani’s cousin, who owned theboat. After a few days, the statue began to smell of rotting fish. Thecousin moved it to a covered garden patio and quietly invited severallocal antique sellers to have a look. They offered up to one millionlire, but the crew wanted more. With the statue’s stench growing stronger by the day, the cousinfretted that someone would alert police. He asked a friend with a Fiat600 Mutipla to pick up the bronze statue and take it to a farm outsidetown, where they buried it in a cabbage field while they looked for aserious buyer. A month later, they found Giacomo Barbetti, an antiquarian whosewealthy family owned a cement factory in Gubbio, 50 miles inlandfrom Fano. Barbetti said he was prepared to pay several million lirefor the statue but naturally needed to see it first. When the figureemerged from the cabbage patch, Barbetti brushed aside the dirt,touched its straight nose and surmised it to be the work of Lysippus,one of the master sculptors of ancient Greece. Lysippos was the personal sculptor of Alexander the Great, and hisfame as a sculptor spread throughout the ancient world on the heels ofhis patron’s conquests. Lysippos rewrote the canon for Greek sculpturewith figures that were more slender and symmetrical than thoseof his predecessors Polycleitus and the great Phidias, sculptor of theAcropolis friezes. Aside from busts of Alexander, Lysippos was famousfor depicting athletes, and many of his bronzes lined the pathwaysof Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic games. Lysippos is said tohave created over 1,500 sculptures in his lifetime, but none was believedto have survived antiquity. Except, perhaps, this one. The bronze athlete in the cabbage patchmay well have been one of those lining the pathways to Olympia, onlyto become war booty for Rome, whose glory slowly eclipsed that ofAthens. As they swept through the Greek mainland and islands,Roman soldiers filled thousands of ships with plunder. It was likely inone such raid that the bronze athlete was torn from its pedestal some300 years after its creation and loaded on to a waiting transport shipfor Rome. The Adriatic was as fickle then as it is today, whipping updeadly storms without warning. Around the time of Christ, the shipbearing the bronze athlete apparently sank to the sea floor, where itlay for two thousand years. As Barbetti touched the foul-smelling figure’s nose he clearly sawsomething he liked. He offered 3.5 million lire — about $4,000,enough to buy several houses in Fano at the time. The money wassplit among the crew. Captain Pirani’s share was about $1,600, doublehis monthly wages. The bronze, meanwhile, was on the move.

Editorial Reviews

America's great art museums are the last sacred cows of our culture. It takes a special sort of intrepid investigator backed by a courageous organization to uncover the secrets and lies of these quasi-public institutions and the private agendas of their wealthy and influential patrons. Chasing Aphrodite is the result of one such rare convergence. A scary, true tale of the blinding allure of great art and the power of the wealth that covets it, it is also an inspiring example of the only greater power: the truth."- Michael Gross, author of Rogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum "A thrilling, well-researched book that offers readers a glimpse into the back-room dealings of a world-class museum - and the illegal trade of looted antiquities. Chasing Aphrodite should not be missed. " -Ulrich Boser, author of THE GARDNER HEIST: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft " Chasing Aphrodite is an epic story that, from the first page, grabs you by the lapels and won't let go. Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino have penetrated the inner sanctum of one of the world's most powerful museums, exposing how its caretakers - blinded by greed, arrogance ;and self-deception - eagerly tapped international networks of criminals in pursuit of the next great masterpiece. ;It is a breathtaking tale that I guarantee will keep you reading late into the night. - Kurt Eichenwald, author of CONSPIRACY OF FOOLS: A True Story " Chasing Aphrodite is a brilliantly told, richly detailed, and vitally important account of how one of America's top cultural institutions spent millions buying treasures stolen from ancient graves and then spent millions more trying to deny it. In the hands of Felch and Frammolino, the story gathers a riveting momentum as the Getty moves from one ethical smashup to another. The authors present an astonishing array of evidence, yet they are scrupulously balanced and keenly sensitive to the nuances of the cultural-property debate. Even if you think you know the story of the Getty, read this book. You won't know whether to laugh or to cry, but you will be enthralled." - Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World "