May 25, 2011

Chasing Aphrodite Reviewed

 "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 375 pp).

Jason Felch &
Ralph Frammolino

Disputes over works of art and antiquities take many forms. Nations and individuals with claims to cultural objects pursue their claims in a number of areas; only seldom are these battles seen in courts of law. As a consequence many of the precedents set for party’s actions are seen outside the public view. This underscores the terrific resource which Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino have created with their new book, officially released yesterday.

Their terrific series of investigative reports for the Los Angeles Times served as the jumping off point for the work. That series of articles was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and helped me crystallize much of my thinking about the antiquities trade and the role of art museums. Those reports, though terrific, were limited by the length of a newspaper article, and the authors continued their reporting in the form of this work to allow the space to explore these issues. In so doing they have created what will stand as the definitive account of the troubled times at the Getty from its creation in the 1970s through 2007. The book takes the form of a straightforward and rigorous account of the events which led to first the creation of the wealthiest art-acquiring institution in the world, its unfortunate choices, and its painful public shaming.

The authors maintain their reporters tone, which serves the material well. I think partisans on both sides of the heritage debates will find much to admire in the consistent and accurate depiction of characters and events. One point for which the authors deserve high marks is their description of the laws at issue—they swiftly and accurately describe the complex network of U.S., Italian and International laws without letting it overwhelm the story they are telling. There are also references and notes for further readings. The book maintains a lively and direct style throughout. I was provided an electronic copy of the work, which had no page numbers, so I am unable to reference the quotations below.

The sources for the book are impressive. They include the personal records of Arthur Houghton, who emerges as an early attempted reformer, Getty records, private correspondence, court records in Rome, and interviews with over three-hundred key individuals. The authors note the only important figures they were not able to interview were J. Paul Getty; Jiri Frel, the first antiquities curator at the Getty, who emerges as an early villain; and Marion True, a complicated figure who because of her unwise acquisitions at the Getty all while championing reform leave me feeling more baffled as to her motivations than ever.
From Left: Barbara Whitney, Deborah Gribbon, John Walsh and
Marion True in happier days

One really does wonder at times with the benefit of hindsight what True was thinking. She earned the contempt of her colleagues in the Museum community for aggressively implementing stringent acquisition standards at the Getty and criticizing the acquisitions by other museums, all while directly purchasing objects which were surely looted. The authors really do well in juxtaposing her actions at the Getty with her public rhetoric about the antiquities trade. Their description of her testimony at a 1999 Cultural Property Advisory Committee meeting evaluating an Italian request for import restrictions into the United States really highlights the hypocrisy:

. . . True strongly defended the Italian request. She deemed “improper” the suggestions of some that it was better to have illicit antiquities on well-tended American shelves than to let the careless Italians keep them in dusty exhibits. American museums were just as careless with their objects, True said. Many still didn’t have updated inventories or pictures of their own items . . . True noted that Italy was becoming more generous with loans of ancient art. Policies that expected Italy to be able to document objects that had been looted, like the one the Getty used to rely on, were irretrievably flawed.

Such comments surely did not endear True to her colleagues. In fact, the Getty had violated many legal and ethical rules to acquire their objects, and once they had a renowned collection had declared, under True’s direction, that the rules of the trade had changed, and other institutions must follow the Getty’s lead. This may perhaps explain why the Getty helped support True by paying her legal fees in her criminal trial in Rome, but had distanced itself publicly.

The "Getty Bronze", one of the
few disputed objects
which has not been returned
Anyone who has followed the Getty and cultural heritage issues in recent years knows well how this story ends, so the most fascinating parts of the book emerge at the beginning, with an account of the chance discovery and smuggling of the “Getty Bronze” from the Adriatic and the town of Fano, and the early days of the Getty.

Those early days set the Getty on what seems to have been a course which could not have avoided trouble. Particulary in chapter four, titled “Worth the Price”. Perhaps because he seems to have offered a great deal of assistance to the authors, Arthur Houghton emerges as an important early figure who attempted to check some of Jiri Frel’s unethical and illegal conduct, particularly in . Early on Houghton recommended that the Getty adopt what he called “optical due diligence” which meant “[t]he Getty should create the appearance that the objects it was acquiring had been carefully vetted, but at the same time avoid ‘certain knowledge’ of where they were actually coming from.” This concept of optical due diligence will likely strike a familiar chord with many observers, but a phrase which I have not seen expressed with such simplicity before.

As the authors note, Houghton was far more concerned with tax fraud that Frel was committing on a grand scale. He would routinely accept donations from wealthy donors, vastly increasing the appraised value of the objects. As the authors note the optical due diligence “was a surprisingly cynical position for Houghton to take, given his moral outrage at Frel’s transgressions. But in his mind, tax fraud and forgery were entirely different from breaking the export laws of a neglectful foreign country, especially when the goal was to educate and enlighten Americans.” In fact, Houghton’s actions were probably consistent with the vast majority of American curators at the time. And given the culture in the early 1980’s, Houghton was probably right that the Getty would likely earn a lot of trouble for itself fast if the IRS discovered the endemic tax fraud.
Aphrodite (or Persephone)
 has been returned to Aidone

Though the Getty now boasts an impressive legacy of research and vast works of art, the early days of the institution are less-than-stellar. One wonders if J. Paul Getty was really the dour, humorless penny-pincher he is depicted to be. The Getty originated not as part of some grand passion for the arts but as a passing hobby of a fantastically rich oil man. As such, those early founders of the Getty trust emerge as important trend-setters who would struggle initially with vast sums of money, and a desire to create one of the world’s foremost cultural institutions. That they succeeded is a testament to the vast wealth they were provided, and also the passion that these objects instill. But the question we must ask is at what cost?

A major theme I see emerging from the book are the incentives which helped fuel this looting. More attention has been directed at recently-acquired objects certainly, but Marion True was an early star in her field because she created galleries and exhibitions of objects with skill in such a way that made the public take notice. The public likes to look at these beautiful objects, and advocates need to continue to do the hard work to essentially train them to be ‘context connoisseurs’, meaning just because an object is beautiful, does nto mean that it should belong in a museum. The path these objects take matters. Had the Getty played by the rules, and not acquired many of these dubious objects, would it have emerged as such an important cultural institution? I’m not sure it would have. We see many poor choices by Marion True in the work, but she also emerges as one of a number of individuals at the Getty, yet she is the only one to have been shamed in such a public way and put on trial. In a perfect world many more probably should have taken blame for these acquisitions.

And the reason for that likely lies in the special esteem that the looted objects instill in us. The Italian government wanted to do everything it could to secure the return of these objects while also ensuring that future illicit activity would not take place, but to secure those returns took many years of hard investigation, and time-consuming and expensive legal negotiation. The Italian team which worked to pressure the Getty and other institutions into returning objects—Maurizio Fiorilli, Paolo Ferri, Francesco Rutelli and others—all emerge as sympathetic figures. Yet they would have had grave difficulty securing the returns had they employed a more direct strategy of prosecution of individuals at the Getty. Their efforts to focus charges on Robert Hecht, Giacomo Medici and Marion True appear to have been an effort to pressure the Getty into returning objects.

The work focuses on the Getty and Marion True and the direct line which can be drawn to looters in Italy. The limestone Aphrodite (which may in fact be Persephone) serves as an apt metaphor for the antiquities trade as a whole. When you heap such esteem on objects, without respecting its past, you risk distorting the object into something it never was. The limestone statue and its marble head, with its stunning depiction of billowing fabric was likely looted from Morgantina in Sicily. The authors introduce the objects at issue well I think, describing their composition, what we know of their history, and also noting what has been destroyed by looters. One feels outrage at the way this statue, perhaps the finest example of classical Greek sculpture outside of London or Greece was smuggled to Switzerland in a carot truck:

Some had seen the body of the statue—without the head—in three pieces at the house of a looter in Gela . . . The huge statue had been toppled over onto a blunt object, breaking it cleanly into three pieces that would be easier to hide during transport. The clean breaks also would make the statue easier to reassemble. The pieces were then driven to Milan, buried under a load of carrots in the back of a Fiat truck, and transported north across the border to Chiasso [Switzerland].

They note as well that Morgantina “proved a bonanza for local looters. After the excavators returned home from a summer of digging, the site fell prey to looters from the nearby hill town of Aidone. [Malcolm] Bell did what he could to fend them off, hiring guards to watch the site during the winter months. But the tombaroli . . . proved tenacious competitors for the relics of the ancient city. Bell once returned to the ruins after Sunday supper and stumbled upon a group hastily emptying a tomb of some 350 objects.” These accounts are disturbing, and it was the Getty’s purchase of objects which, though beautiful and rare, had destroyed context.

Many will likely point to the illegal and unethical conduct of the Getty in the work, and they are right to do so. Yet the archaeological community and nations of origin have much to answer for as well. When these ancient cities are studied, concern needs to be directed at the source to how the locals will react. What good is a trained archaeologist who painstakingly unearths parts of an ancient city, only to have her work undone at night by looters. That really is the legacy of the dispute between Italy and the Getty which the authors skillfully detail. Moving forward how can we envision a collaborative network which follows the law, but also protects sites, allows for professional excavation, and allows us to steward these precious resources for future generations.
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