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Book Review: “Chasing Aphrodite”

Any interest in a story that involves tax-evasion, Swiss bank accounts, imaginary archaeologists, the mafia, bribery, money-laundering, art thieves, reclusive billionaires, ethically challenged CEOs, obsessed police investigators, and the world’s most incredible archaeological treasures?

Pulitzer Prize finalists Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino offer up just that in Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum

This is the story of the Getty. Truth is stranger than fiction indeed. And far more tragic.

Illicit looting of archaeological sites around the world has become an epidemic. It happens everywhere. No country or culture seems immune. I’ve had my own run in with looters as I’ve noted before. Roger Atwood’s excellent Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World lays this practice bare with all its tragic consequences. Antiquities collectors are ensuring the loss of human knowledge and cheapening our understanding of our collective history.

One would think that venerable institutions such as museums would prove a bulwark against this practice. In fact, they encourage and actively participate in the destruction of our archaeological inheritance. While the authors focus on the example of the Getty Museum, American, British, German and French museums among others have been acting out this imperialistic greed for over two-hundred years.

Founded as a tax-shelter in the 1950s, the J. Paul Getty Museum of California found itself with an astounding amount of money upon the death of the ascetic Getty just over forty years ago. The museum jumped into high gear as an antiquities collecting institution in the 1970s, when its officials cynically crossed all lines to build the Getty into a “world class” museum and research institution.

The antiquity at the center of the book is the cult statue of “Aphrodite”. The stunning statue was stolen from a Sicilian archaeological site in the late 1970s and, after passing through many hands, ended up as a purchased item at the Getty in 1988 where it remained for 22 years.

Clearly a looted item, the officials at the Getty actively avoided any knowledge of the origins of the “Aphrodite” and, astoundingly, turned down numerous opportunities to learn more about its origins and meaning. Amazingly, soil found on the statues was collected into a vial and hidden away for years. When offered opportunities to learn more about the statues and even to gain access to missing fragments, the Getty refused. The authors make a powerful case that this was not a one-time incident but rather a pattern of behavior from the Getty, the Met and other powerful collecting institutions.

When confronted, the Getty refused from the beginning to make changes (and they knew this stuff had recently been ripped from the ground!).

“The reality is that 95% of the antiquities on the market have been found in the last three years. The only way one obtains them is if you do not ask the specific questions that would elicit the specific answer about provenance that made the material un-buyable….” a Getty official said when confronted by attorneys for the institution. “Certain knowledge” was to be avoided. A practice that became known as “optical due diligence”.

And again, “optical due diligence’ wasn’t and isn’t a practice limited to the Getty. Some might defend the practice of antiquities collecting by claiming that more is to be learned through antiquities collection than otherwise but I say this is silly. Of what use is a “mute object of beauty”, as the authors labeled the “Aphrodite” in a subsequent article?

What knowledge does an institution preserve by refusing to learn more? The claimed public mission to educate is more often than not undermined by the greedy, hording nature of the institutions. Thousands of items and unfathomable knowledge are destroyed for each “Aphrodite” pulled from the ground and sold to Western collectors.

Not only is the very concept of “partage” corrupt but it actually does more harm than good.

Loaded with fascinating characters and driven by a fast-paced narrative, “Chasing Aphrodite” makes a powerful case that museums have destroyed far more knowledge of the ancient world than they have preserved by driving the black market and the illicit destruction of precious archaeological sites.

Central to the story is Getty Antiquities Curator Marion True. A tragic figure straight from the very best of fiction. A reformist who at once advocates for a change in institutional acquisition practices undermines those efforts by embarking on a reckless scheme to gain the best of ancient antiquities for the Getty regardless the origin. She at once evokes sympathy (perhaps empathy as well) and disgust. Her choices were oh-so-human and oh-so-troubling. Either way, the evidence against her as presented in the book is extensive and extremely negative.

(It should be noted that True refused an interview of the book and many questions remain about her actions. True’s trial ended in late 2010 without a verdict, after “Chasing Aphrodite” had gone to press.)

Much of the book is based on an extensive review of internal Getty documents. They too are damning of the entire internal culture of the institution. The ethical violations, bribes, smuggling, money-laundering, tax-dodging and general dishonesty that are routine in the museum world will astound most readers.

While the authors document (and recent headlines attest) the return of items illicitly obtained over the past decade you can’t help but sense that the returns are grudging. We’re not talking the Rosetta Stone or the Haramhad here. Bits and fragments from King Tut’s tomb held in a drawer in the Met won’t cut it. Not to mention that, the museums didn’t just admit they were wrong and hand over the items. They were forced to admit the truth in the face of overwhelming evidence and left with little choice. The fact that they retain billions of dollars worth of antiquities attests to the reality that little has changed. The very practice raises countless scientific ethical questions and demeans the countries of origin.

Ancient art collection has become indefensible.

As I noted before , it is very bothersome that some claim that modern nations who want to retain their archaeological resources are nothing more than ‘nationalists’:

“…. Well, what does that make Cuno and his ilk? Worse than nationalists, me thinks. Attempting to parse cultural descendency is violently political. It seems safest to eliminate that nationalism infused scholarly hassle of who gets the goodies and let the countries where the artifacts lie take jurisdiction. Wouldn’t the other way give Britain claim to Boston’s historical sites? Plymouth Rock? The French get Montreal. Spain gets the Southwest missions?”

I, for one, advocate for complete return of all plundered cultural items. In reality that would mean a near complete dissolution of institutions like the Getty whose very existence pays homage to the entrenchment of Western cultural imperialism. If concern over access and or care of antiquities remains the call of the imperialists then wealthy institutions such as the Getty and the Met should assist countries of origin to contract the proper facilities. I see no good reasons for the plundered Greek marbles held in British museums not to be returned. The absurdity of one far off nation spending tens of millions of dollars to purchase the cultural heritage of another nation is made crystal clear by “Chasing Aphrodite”.

Radical? Yes. Likely to happen? No. Western nations have proved loathe to truly end the past four-hundred years of imperialism.

Until such time (and perhaps on a more conciliatory note), I suggest the following:

– Collecting should stop immediately;
– Nations of origin such as Italy, Greece and Peru should press forward aggressively in pursuit of looted antiquities;
– Simultaneously, the question of long-term loans to museums such as the Getty, the Met and so on should be perused;
– All Western museums should collaborate closely with institutions in the countries of origin to develop complete databases of antiquities collections in all locations and make that information freely available to investigators and researchers alike;
– Collecting institutions must begin using their considerable sums to help plan and construct modern museums and research facilities in countries of origin. This includes Native American lands and those of other indigenous peoples;
– Collecting institutions must begin or expand funding support for legal and ethical excavation and research in conjunction with home country institutions.

While the authors of make no objection to museums collecting antiquities legally, I left the book feeling that “Chasing Aphrodite” undermines any reason at all for museums to appropriate ancient art. Elginism is laid bare.

It is time that museums move beyond ownership. The very concept of ancient art acquisitions must be torn down and replaced.


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