'Chasing Aphrodite' And Other Dirty Art World Deals

A marble sculpture from the 4th century B.C. shows winged griffins attacking a fallen doe. It was purchased by the Getty Museum in 1985. A decade later, authorities seized Polaroid photos from the warehouse of a well-known antiquities middleman, who admitted the sculpture had been looted from ruins in Italy. Click here to see those Polaroids.

hide captionA marble sculpture from the 4th century B.C. shows winged griffins attacking a fallen doe. It was purchased by the Getty Museum in 1985. A decade later, authorities seized Polaroid photos from the warehouse of a well-known antiquities middleman, who admitted the sculpture had been looted from ruins in Italy. Click here to see those Polaroids.

AP

On Tuesday, the archaeological museum in Aidone, Sicily, will inaugurate the exhibit of a long-lost but now hard-won antiquity — a stone Aphrodite that was illegally excavated from the region 30 years ago. The ancient statue is one of 40 illicitly acquired objects that have finally been repatriated to Italy from one of the world's wealthiest museums — the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles.

This 4th century B.C. stone sculpture of Aphrodite, goddess of love, was illegally excavated from Sicily. The Getty Museum purchased it in 1988. In 2007, the Getty agreed to return it — along with 40 other disputed artifacts — to the Italian government. The goddess will be officially installed at her new home — a small museum in Sicily — on Tuesday. i i

hide captionThis 4th century B.C. stone sculpture of Aphrodite, goddess of love, was illegally excavated from Sicily. The Getty Museum purchased it in 1988. In 2007, the Getty agreed to return it — along with 40 other disputed artifacts — to the Italian government. The goddess will be officially installed at her new home — a small museum in Sicily — on Tuesday.

AP
This 4th century B.C. stone sculpture of Aphrodite, goddess of love, was illegally excavated from Sicily. The Getty Museum purchased it in 1988. In 2007, the Getty agreed to return it — along with 40 other disputed artifacts — to the Italian government. The goddess will be officially installed at her new home — a small museum in Sicily — on Tuesday.

This 4th century B.C. stone sculpture of Aphrodite, goddess of love, was illegally excavated from Sicily. The Getty Museum purchased it in 1988. In 2007, the Getty agreed to return it — along with 40 other disputed artifacts — to the Italian government. The goddess will be officially installed at her new home — a small museum in Sicily — on Tuesday.

AP
Chasing Aphrodite
By Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
Hardcover, 384 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List Price: $28
Read An Excerpt

In award-winning reporting for the Los Angeles Times, journalists Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino exposed the dramatic story of the Getty's underhanded art dealings led by their former antiquities curator, Marion True. From back alleys to basement bank vaults, True got her hands on beautiful objects, from an ancient gold wreath to the stone goddess in question — where Felch and Frammolino got the name of their new book: Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum.

The World's 'Second Oldest Profession'

True isn't the only guilty one, of course. The Getty and many other top American museums are part of a long history of illicit art trade. Looted art has been trafficked for as long as art has been in existence, and Frammolino says this is due to the overpowering effects of antiquity.

"People who come in contact with antiquities — the history of it, the beauty of these antiquities, the thought that maybe somebody great had once possessed this — they lose reason," he tells NPR's Renee Montagne.

In fact, one of the main attributes that the director of the Getty looks for in a curator is object lust, Frammolino says. But for True, that characteristic might have overtaken her. As the antiquities curator of the Getty from 1986 to 2005, she wielded one of the largest acquisition budgets in the country, and perhaps the world.

"[She] used that in a very savvy way to help the Getty build what today is considered one of the most important antiquities collections in the world," Felch says.

But that collection would not be possible without the help of a complex web of grave robbers, patrons, wealthy collectors and the complicity of some of the world's most revered museums.

"The illicit antiquities trade is kind of the dirtiest corner of the art market," Felch says. "It brought together highly educated, Ph.D. Harvard-graduate curators, and you saw them doing business in bank vaults with people who were in the criminal underground."

In 1964, Italian fishermen found a bronze, barnacle-covered statue of a Greek athlete in the Adriatic Sea (see below). The statue was buried in a cabbage field, hidden in a priest's bathtub and smuggled out of Italy. It re-emerged on the European art market in the mid-1970s; the J. Paul Getty Museum purchased it for $3.95 million in 1977. i i

hide captionIn 1964, Italian fishermen found a bronze, barnacle-covered statue of a Greek athlete in the Adriatic Sea (see below). The statue was buried in a cabbage field, hidden in a priest's bathtub and smuggled out of Italy. It re-emerged on the European art market in the mid-1970s; the J. Paul Getty Museum purchased it for $3.95 million in 1977.

J. Paul Getty Museum/AP
In 1964, Italian fishermen found a bronze, barnacle-covered statue of a Greek athlete in the Adriatic Sea (see below). The statue was buried in a cabbage field, hidden in a priest's bathtub and smuggled out of Italy. It re-emerged on the European art market in the mid-1970s; the J. Paul Getty Museum purchased it for $3.95 million in 1977.

In 1964, Italian fishermen found a bronze, barnacle-covered statue of a Greek athlete in the Adriatic Sea (see below). The statue was buried in a cabbage field, hidden in a priest's bathtub and smuggled out of Italy. It re-emerged on the European art market in the mid-1970s; the J. Paul Getty Museum purchased it for $3.95 million in 1977.

J. Paul Getty Museum/AP

The Getty Museum's Tricky Dance

It might seem an odd partnership, but the brightest minds in the museum world were driven to deal with criminals in the pursuit of objects of beauty. To account for their illicit dealings, Felch says, the Getty adopted a see-no-evil policy.

"They danced this very tricky dance for several years, where they publicly denounced the illicit trade and they decried the looting that their acquisitions fueled," he explains.

In one instance, the Getty knowingly purchased an ancient golden funerary wreath from impostors. A pair of supposed Swiss collectors contacted the Getty in the early 1990s with an offer to sell the wreath. When True met with the gentlemen, it was clear that something was amiss. The wreath, stowed in a cardboard box, was slightly rumpled, and the men did not seem to be who they claimed to be: "One very likely has a thick Greek accent, the other is a Serb, and both of them seem somewhat shady," Felch says.

The Getty Bronze, covered in barnacles, as it appeared in 1964, when it was pulled out of the sea by fishermen off the coast of Fano, Italy. i i

hide captionThe Getty Bronze, covered in barnacles, as it appeared in 1964, when it was pulled out of the sea by fishermen off the coast of Fano, Italy.

The Getty Bronze, covered in barnacles, as it appeared in 1964, when it was pulled out of the sea by fishermen off the coast of Fano, Italy.

The Getty Bronze, covered in barnacles, as it appeared in 1964, when it was pulled out of the sea by fishermen off the coast of Fano, Italy.

The wreath — which dates to the time of Alexander the Great and possibly belonged to one of his relatives — was stunning. But True was hesitant to buy it from sources that were clearly illegal. Felch says she returned to the Getty without it, claiming that they couldn't have anything to do with such a dangerous acquisition.

But just three months later, the Getty did in fact buy it — simply "because they wanted it," Frammolino says. Both Italy and Greece had heard about the wreath and laid claim to it, so True played them off each other.

"Marion True told the Italians that it probably came from Greece, and then she told the Greeks that the Italians think it came from Italy," Frammolino says. "That's the game that's played.

The "high" road often taken by antiquities curators — that they are nobly saving what would be otherwise lost pieces — is the core irony at the center of Chasing Aphrodite, Felch says.

"The Getty and other American museums over the last decades have justified the acquisition of these things under questionable circumstances by saying that these poor orphan objects have been separated from their archaeological context already, and that we have a duty to rescue them from the market and to preserve them and display them publicly," he says.

But the truth was that by buying these objects on the black market, these museums were further fueling the looting that was going on across the Mediterranean.

In 2005, Getty antiquities curator Marion True was indicted by a Roman court for trafficking looted objects. When the statute of limitations expired on the charges, the trial ended with no verdict. i i

hide captionIn 2005, Getty antiquities curator Marion True was indicted by a Roman court for trafficking looted objects. When the statute of limitations expired on the charges, the trial ended with no verdict.

Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
In 2005, Getty antiquities curator Marion True was indicted by a Roman court for trafficking looted objects. When the statute of limitations expired on the charges, the trial ended with no verdict.

In 2005, Getty antiquities curator Marion True was indicted by a Roman court for trafficking looted objects. When the statute of limitations expired on the charges, the trial ended with no verdict.

Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Road To Museum Reform

It was a duplicitous era in art dealing, but one that is coming to a close. The Getty ended up losing 40 pieces — sparking other museums to proactively return questionable pieces before they, too, faced legal consequences.

"Because of this scandal, the Met, the Getty, the Cleveland Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a leading collector, some dealers — they had to give back more than 100 pieces of some of the best antiquities in North America to the governments of Greece and Italy at the tune of half a billion dollars' worth," Frammolino says.

But the good news is that the Getty has become a leader in a series of genuine museum reforms aimed at correcting past mistakes. Its leadership has paved the way to a new era of cooperation, Frammolino says.

"The Getty takes loans from Italy now," he says. "There's no more this idea we have to possess the art. We can take long-term loans and actually serve the patrons by showing more art and kind of rotating it through our collection."

As for the stone goddess, she was taken off display at the Getty months ago to prepare her for her return voyage to Sicily. But Felch wonders whether the ending is as triumphant as it seems.

Even though the statue was supposedly bought off the illicit market, the Aphrodite was seen by more than a million visitors over the years at the Getty, Felch says. Now, back home in Sicily where the statue really belongs, she is on display for a much smaller audience.

"It's really a kind of a bittersweet ending, but this was the right thing to do — and now the Getty is without its goddess."

Excerpt: 'Chasing Aphrodite'

Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
Chasing Aphrodite
By Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
Hardcover, 384 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List Price: $28

The 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 seaport of Fano and motored south, making a steady eight knots along Italy's east coast. When the Ferri reached the peninsula of Ancona, Romeo Pirani, the boat's captain, set a course east-southeast, half way between the dry scirocco wind that blew up from Africa and the cooler levanti that swept across the Adriatic from Yugoslavia.

The six-man crew dozed. The sea was glassy, but Pirani knew how temperamental the Adriatic could be this time of year. Just a few weeks earlier, a sudden storm had blown across the sea, sinking three boats and killing four fishermen. Weather was not his only worry. The Second World War had left its mark on the sea and made his job all the more dangerous. Nets hauled up mines and bombs left behind decades ago by retreating Nazi forces or their American pursuers. The arms of many men in Fano bore scars from the acid that oozed out of the rusting ordnance.

As the sun rose, blinding their eyes, Pirani and his crew sipped moretta, a hot mixture of rum, brandy, espresso and anise, topped with a lemon rind and lots of sugar. The strong brew gave the men not just warmth, but courage. By nightfall, the Ferri had reached its destination, a spot in international waters roughly midway between Italy and Yugoslavia. The captain knew of a rocky outcropping that rose from the seabed where schools of merluza, St. Peter's Fish and octopus gathered for safety in the summer heat. Other boats ventured farther east, into the deep waters off the Yugoslav coast, where they risked arrest for poaching, But Pirani preferred this hidden shoal.
While fishing there meant occasionally snagging the nets on sharp rocks, 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 gunned the engine and, with a jolt, the nets came free. As some peered over the side, the crew hauled in its catch: A barnacle-encrusted object that resembled 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 the thing was too rigid and heavy to be a man. The crew dragged it to the bow of the boat. The life-sized figure weighed about 300 pounds and had black holes for eyes and was frozen in a curious pose. Its right hand 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 torn nets. It was only later, when they stopped for a breakfast of roasted fish, 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's gold!

Pirani pushed through the huddle and looked at the exposed metal. Not gold, he declared, bronze. None had ever seen anything like it. It might be worth something. The Ferri's men made a hasty decision. Rather than turn it over to local authorities, they would sell the figure and divvy the profits.

As the Ferri motored back to Fano that afternoon, word came over the radio that the town was afire with news of the discovery. The spark had come earlier, when the Captain had mentioned it while chatting ship-to-shore with his wife. Now crowds had gathered in the port for the Ferri's return. Pirani cut the engine and waited until nightfall. 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 a pile of nets, and took it to the house of Pirani's cousin, who owned the boat. After a few days, the statue began to smell of rotting fish. The cousin moved it to a covered garden patio and quietly invited several local antique sellers to have a look. They offered up to one million lire, but the crew wanted more.

With the statue's stench growing stronger by the day, the cousin fretted that someone would alert police. He asked a friend with a Fiat 600 Mutipla to pick up the bronze statue and take it to a farm outside town, where they buried it in a cabbage field while they looked for a serious buyer.

A month later, they found Giacomo Barbetti, an antiquarian whose wealthy family owned a cement factory in Gubbio, 50 miles inland from Fano. Barbetti said he was prepared to pay several million lire for the statue but naturally needed to see it first. When the figure emerged 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 his fame as a sculptor spread throughout the ancient world on the heels of his patron's conquests. Lysippos rewrote the canon for Greek sculpture with figures that were more slender and symmetrical than those of his predecessors Polycleitus and the great Phidias, sculptor of the Acropolis friezes. Aside from busts of Alexander, Lysippos was famous for depicting athletes, and many of his bronzes lined the pathways of Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic games. Lysippos is said to have created over 1,500 sculptures in his lifetime, but none was believed to have survived antiquity.

Except, perhaps, this one. The bronze athlete in the cabbage patch may well have been one of those lining the pathways to Olympia, only to become war booty for Rome, whose glory slowly eclipsed that of Athens. As they swept through the Greek mainland and islands, Roman soldiers filled thousands of ships with plunder. It was likely in one such raid that the bronze athlete was torn from its pedestal some 300 years after its creation and loaded on to a waiting transport ship for Rome. The Adriatic was as fickle then as it is today, whipping up deadly storms without warning. Around the time of Christ, the ship bearing the bronze athlete apparently sank to the sea floor, where it lay for two thousand years.

As Barbetti touched the foul-smelling figure's nose he clearly saw something he liked. He offered 3.5 million lire — about $4,000, enough to buy several houses in Fano at the time. The money was split among the crew. Captain Pirani's share was about $1,600, double his monthly wages.

The bronze, meanwhile, was on the move.

From Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. Copyright 2011, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

Chasing Aphrodite
Chasing Aphrodite

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

by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

Hardcover, 375 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • Chasing Aphrodite
  • The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum
  • Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: