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Posted July 10, 2014
We think of museums as quiet places run by brainy, arty people i
We think of museums as quiet places run by brainy, arty people in tweed coats or sensible shoes, talking in MFA-speak. We don’t think of them as hotbeds of sex, betrayal, fraud, money-laundering, fencing stolen objects, political turmoil and intrigue. But as Chasing Aphrodite shows, a major American museum could be the setting for a fine soap opera, or a Law & Order franchise.
Chasing Aphrodite focuses on Los Angeles’ Getty Museum and Trust. The child of billionaire skinflint J. Paul Getty, the museum started life as a catch basin for Getty’s largely second-rate collection of European art and a nearly first-rate collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. Upon his death, the Getty Trust inherited a huge chunk of money and the means to vault itself into the first tier of world cultural institutions. But a series of personalities attached to the Museum began scooping up industrial quantities of relics with sketchy (or nonexistent) provenances (collection histories) in defiance of a 1970 UNESCO convention that said “Thou shalt not.” The Getty didn’t stand alone in this; many of its peer museums, auction houses, collectors and dealers also swam in the same polluted pool.
Authors Felch and Frammolino are both Los Angeles Times investigative reporters; this book is an extension of their Pulitzer-nominated series of articles on this subject. Unlike many nonfiction books based on newspaper reporting, Aphrodite reads like a full-fledged true-crime book (which it is) rather than a cut-and-paste job. Their prose is clear and lucid, avoiding the sometimes-impenetrable art-world jargon, and their portrait sketches of the leading characters are clear and sufficient without being overladen with backstory. You don’t have to be a specialist in order to understand – and enjoy – their work.
The story itself is as fascinating as it is juicy, laced as it is with tales of tax fraud, Mafiosi, tomb raiding, smuggling ancient works of art (in purses and carry-ons on pre-9/11 airline flights), backbiting, feuds and affairs. It even stars a dogged Italian prosecutor, a doomed, flawed semi-heroine, and a wastrel CEO. It wouldn’t take much to turn this into a novel.
A couple minor cavils. As mentioned, the narrative covers over thirty years and a huge, multinational cast of characters; a timeline and a list of cast members wouldn’t be amiss, and the text could use a few more mentions of dates (or at least years) so the reader can keep track of how much time is passing. Also, this story cries out for pictures of not only the cast, but of the featured art; the Aphrodite of Morgantina, the star artifact, gets one small, fuzzy black-and-white photo.
If Museum of the Missing is your gateway drug into the subject of art crime, Chasing Aphrodite is the next step up the addiction ladder – a compelling armchair read that shows you how this world works without leaving you feeling like you’ve been dragged through a pre-law program. If your appetite for antiquities looting is stimulated by this book, the authors maintain a website and blog that continues and deepens the story to include the misdeeds of other museums and auction houses. If you’re a true-crime fan tiring of bizarre serial killers, take a stroll with some forgers, smugglers and thieves. Or if you just like to read about pride going before the fall, this is the Fine Arts edition of that age-old story. You’ll never look at a vase in a vitrine the same way again.
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Posted September 11, 2013
I love books written by journalists! 'Chasing Aphrodite' is non
I love books written by journalists! 'Chasing Aphrodite' is non-fiction written as fiction. It's about the changing of the guard, when old ideas about how antiquities may be acquired clashes with the new information regarding the provenance of museum pieces.
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Posted January 2, 2012
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