RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
For as long as there has been art, there have been people motivated to steal it and museums willing to buy it. And two reporters for the Los Angeles Times spent years delving into the darkest art collecting - antiquities. In award-winning reporting, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino exposed how the world's richest museum, The Getty in L.A., bought stolen antiquities.
In their new book "Chasing Aphrodite," they describe the allure of breathtaking objects, from an ancient golden wreath to a marble goddess, illicitly traded in back alleys and basement bank vaults. Felch and Frammolino joined us here at NPR West.
Mr. JASON FELCH (Author, "Chasing Aphrodite"): It seems like people who come into 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. One of the quotes that we like to say about this, is that when the museum director of the Getty was asked what are you looking for in curators. He says one thing: object lust.
MONTAGNE: Which seems to have taken over, in a way, the main character in this scandal, in this drama, that you write about. Tell us about her, Jason Felch.
Mr. FELCH: Marion True was the antiquities dealer at the Getty from 1986 to 2005. As curator at the Getty, she wielded the biggest acquisition budget of any museum curator in the country, probably in the world, and 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.
MONTAGNE: In your book you describe this vivid world that binds together grave robbers, patrons, wealthy collectors, some of the world's most revered museums. Give us a thumbnail of that larger relationship, that web.
Mr. FELCH: This, I think, gets to the core of what happened in this era. The illicit antiquities trade is kind of the dirtiest corner of the art market, and it brought together highly educated PhD Harvard graduate curators, and you saw them doing business in bank vaults with people who were in the criminal underground. And the question is what were these people doing there? Why were our brightest minds in the museum world dealing with these criminals. And the answer is that they were pursuing objects of beauty. And so they danced this very tricky dance for several years, at the Getty, where they publicly denounced the illicit trade, they decried the looting that their acquisitions fueled, and essentially at the policy that they adopted was: see no evil.
MONTAGNE: Is there one scene that really illustrates what Marion True, and perhaps colleagues, got themselves into, how deep they got into this world?
Mr. FELCH: In the early 1990s Marion True was sent a fax, and it offered an ancient gold and funerary wreath. She was invited to come to Switzerland to meet with a gentleman who presented himself as a Swiss collector who wanted to sell this object to the Getty. After some negotiations via fax, she flies to Switzerland and there meets two gentlemen, both of who don't strike her as Swiss collectors.
One, very likely, has a thick Greek accent. The other is a Serb. And both of them seem somewhat shady. They have the golden funerary wreath in a cardboard box. It's somewhat crumbled. It dates to the time of Alexander the Great. Indeed it very may well have rested on the head of one of Alexander's relatives. Marion True is stunned by the beauty of the object. She's compelled to buy it and yet she's frightened. She doesn't take the wreath at that moment.
She goes back to the Getty and she says this wreath is far too dangerous for us to be involved with. These men were clearly imposters and I'm sorry we can't have anything to do with this. Three months later, the Getty buys the golden funerary wreath.
Mr. RALPH FRAMMOLINO (Co-author, "Chasing Aphrodite"): Because they wanted it. It's a stunning piece. Ralph Frammolino here. When Italy and Greece heard about this wreath, both countries claimed it. Marion True told the Italians that it probably came from Greece. Then she told the Greeks that the Italians think it came from Italy. So that's the game that's played.
MONTAGNE: Curators who want to put antiquities on display do have a high road that they say they are walking. It has to do with saving antiquities that would otherwise be lost. What is that argument and does it really hold up?
Mr. FRAMMOLINO: I think this is the core irony at the center of the book. The purpose of museums is to preserve and to protect these objects, and educate the broader public about them. And so 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 archeological context already, and that we have a duty to rescue them from the market and to preserve them and to display them publicly.
The truth was, that by buying these objects on the black market, the Getty, and the Met, and the Boston, and other American museums were providing the fuel for looting that was going on across the Mediterranean.
MONTAGNE: Not to give anything away, but the Getty ended up losing.
Mr. FRAMMOLINO: It lost 40 pieces. The Getty had to give back 40 pieces. And all together, because of this scandal - the Met, the Getty, the Cleveland Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a leading collector of 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. And they did it because they wanted to avoid the scenario that the Getty was in.
And since then, the museum world has turned around and the good news is the Getty had led the reform, genuine reform; and has also led in a new kind of era of cooperation where the Getty takes loans from Italy now. There's no more of this idea we have to posses 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.
MONTAGNE: And Jason, the goddess, Aphrodite, where is she now?
Mr. FELCH: Earlier this year the statue was taken off display, very carefully crated up and sent back to Italy.
Mr. FRAMMOLINO: Right, and here again the ending is a little bittersweet, because as a supposedly illicit object bought off the illicit market, but at the Getty, this Aphrodite was seen by hundreds of thousands of people, probably more than a million over the years. Now it goes back home where it really belongs, and it goes into a small museum that's out of the way, and who knows how many people will see it. So it's really kind of a bittersweet ending, but this was the right thing to do. And now the Getty is without its goddess.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch are the authors of "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum." Marion True became the first American curator ever indicted for trafficking in looted art - by a foreign government, Italy. While she always insisted on her innocence, the five year trial ended abruptly without a verdict, because the statute of limitations ran out. Tomorrow, Sicily will be celebrating the return of its long lost goddess at the opening of a gallery in her honor. You can see the Aphrodite and other works of art that were traded illicitly at our website npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.