Jason Felch, Ralph Frammolino: Chasing Aphrodite

Jason Felch, Ralph Frammolino: Chasing Aphrodite

B+

Chasing Aphrodite

Author: Jason Felch, Ralph Frammolino
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Indiana Jones series provides a simple, black-and-white view of archaeology. Bad guys steal items for personal gain. Good guys look at a priceless artifact and say “That belongs in a museum.” Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt For Looted Antiquities At The World’s Richest Museum explores the complicated and gray areas in between, providing a startling in-depth look at the questionable-to-outright-illegal methods Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum used to acquire works of ancient art.

Written by Los Angeles Times reporters Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite is an extension of the series they wrote on the Getty, which became a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Freed from the constraints of newspaper word counts, the duo weaves a highly engaging tale of hubris and corruption. Getty, a miserly oil tycoon with a love of ancient art, left much of his fortune to his museum. The upstart institution’s buying power attracted attention from antiquities looters, who were looking for the highest prices for pieces stolen from Italy and Greece. Felch and Frammolino show that the Getty was all too happy to implement a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, accepting origin stories for the artifacts that wouldn’t pass even light scrutiny, and declining to run tests that could provide more information on the pieces. As a result of that purposeful ignorance, they paid millions for a statue that is now displayed as a possible fake. The book takes its title from a massive piece that the curators decided was Aphrodite, ignoring evidence of its true origins, which suggested otherwise.

Felch and Frammolino don’t reveal their sources, who provided dramatic details on the dirty dealings that went on at the museum. The one missing voice is that of Marion True, the curator who becomes the book’s protagonist. True was one of the few powers at the Getty who declined to be interviewed even after the scandal broke, and the result is that many of her motives remain mysterious. The authors seem divided on how to portray the woman who pushed museums across America to stop buying looted artifacts and form closer ties with Italy, Greece, and other “source countries,” while at the same time allegedly picking out dubious pieces for friends to buy and then donate to the museum as part of their private collections so the Getty wouldn’t be culpable. The book alternates between showing her as two-faced and greedy, and as a tragic heroine legitimately trying to improve things within a corrupt culture.

One argument Getty curators made is that if they don’t buy looted artifacts, that doesn’t stop the looting—it just means the pieces wind up in private collections. Felch and Frammolino never really address that point, only mentioning near the end of the book that changing museum policies seem to have led to a reduction in looting. For all the details that Chasing Aphrodite does offer, it hints at an even bigger story to be told about the artifacts that never wind up in museums.

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