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

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Overview

In recent years, several of America’s leading art museums have voluntarily given up their finest pieces of classical art to the governments of Italy and Greece. The monetary value is estimated at over half a billion dollars. Why would they be moved to such unheard-of generosity? 

The answer lies at the Getty, one of the world’s richest and most troubled museums, and scandalous revelations that it had been buying looted antiquities for decades. Drawing on a trove of ...

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

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Overview

In recent years, several of America’s leading art museums have voluntarily given up their finest pieces of classical art to the governments of Italy and Greece. The monetary value is estimated at over half a billion dollars. Why would they be moved to such unheard-of generosity? 

The answer lies at the Getty, one of the world’s richest and most troubled museums, and scandalous revelations that it had been buying looted antiquities for decades. Drawing on a trove of confidential museum records and frank interviews, Felch and Frammolino give us a fly-on-the-wall account of the inner workings of a world-class museum and tell the story of the Getty’s dealings in the illegal antiquities trade. The outlandish characters and bad behavior could come straight from the pages of a thriller—the wealthy recluse founder, the cagey Italian art investigator, the playboy curator, the narcissist CEO—but their chilling effects on the rest of the art world have been all too real, as the authors show in novelistic detail. 

Fast-paced and compelling, Chasing Aphrodite exposes the layer of dirt beneath the polished façade of the museum business.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In the last few years, major American museums have launched a major campaign of repentance, voluntarily returning more than one hundred classical antiques worth more than half a billion dollars to Italy and Greece. Such spontaneous acts of beneficence become understandable only when placed within the context of the recent art looting scandals plaguing the Getty Museum, the richest art emporium on earth. The story of those illegal and doubtful purchases was significantly unearthed by the two Los Angeles Times investigative reporters who wrote this book, which is undoubtedly the best narrative history we will savor from this sordid affair.

Publishers Weekly
In an authoritative account, two reporters who led a Los Angeles Times investigation, reveal the details of the Getty Museum's illicit purchases, from smugglers and fences, of looted Greek and Roman antiquities. In 2005, the Italians indicted former Getty curator Marion True for trafficking in looted antiquities, and by 2007, after protracted negotiations, the Getty agreed to return 40 of 46 artifacts demanded by the Italian government; Italy in turn agreed to loan the Getty comparable objects. One of the major pieces lost by the Getty was an Aphrodite statue purchased by True to put the Getty on the map. But still eluding the Italians is the Getty Bronze, a statue of an athlete hauled out of international waters in 1964 by Italian fishermen; it was the prized acquisition of the Getty's first antiquities curator, Jiri Frel, who brought thousands more looted antiquities into the museum through a tax-fraud scheme. The authors offer an excellent recap of the museum's misdeeds, brimming with tasty details of the scandal that motivated several of America's leading art museums to voluntarily return to Italy and Greece some 100 classical antiquities worth more than half a billion dollars. 8 pages of b&w photos. (May)
From the Publisher
"America’s great art museums are the last sacred cows of our culture. It takes a special sort of intrepid investigator backed by a courageous organization to uncover the secrets and lies of these quasi-public institutions and the private agendas of their wealthy and influential patrons. Chasing Aphrodite is the result of one such rare convergence. A scary, true tale of the blinding allure of great art and the power of the wealth that covets it, it is also an inspiring example of the only greater power: the truth."-  Michael Gross, author of Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum

"A thrilling, well-researched book that offers readers a glimpse into the back-room dealings of a world-class museum—and the illegal trade of looted antiquities. Chasing Aphrodite should not be missed. " –Ulrich Boser, author of THE GARDNER HEIST: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft

"Chasing Aphrodite is an epic story that, from the first page, grabs you by the lapels and won’t let go. Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino have penetrated the inner sanctum of one of the world’s most powerful museums, exposing how its caretakers – blinded by greed, arrogance  and self-deception – eagerly tapped international networks of criminals in pursuit of the next great masterpiece.  It is a breathtaking tale that I guarantee will keep you reading late into the night. - Kurt Eichenwald, author of CONSPIRACY OF FOOLS: A True Story

"Chasing Aphrodite is a brilliantly told, richly detailed, and vitally important account of how one of America’s top cultural institutions spent millions buying treasures stolen from ancient graves and then spent millions more trying to deny it. In the hands of Felch and Frammolino, the story gathers a riveting momentum as the Getty moves from one ethical smashup to another. The authors present an astonishing array of evidence, yet they are scrupulously balanced and keenly sensitive to the nuances of the cultural-property debate. Even if you think you know the story of the Getty, read this book. You won’t know whether to laugh or to cry, but you will be enthralled." —Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World


Kirkus Reviews

Intricate exposé of sordid acquisition practices at prestigious museums.

Los Angeles Timesreporters Felch and Frammolino covered long-simmering misdeeds at the J. Paul Getty Museum, receiving a 2006 Pulitzer nomination and fueling an international controversy. The governments of Greece and Italy have become increasingly aggrieved over the self-serving philosophies that have allowed institutions like the Getty to duck thorny issues of cultural patrimony regarding obviously looted precious objects: "As in a Greek tragedy, the Getty sowed the seeds of its own disgrace. For years it built an enviable collection of antiquities by turning a blind eye to their origins." The authors document how, particularly in the 1970s and '80s, imperious administrators bought rare antiquities freely from well-connected middlemen who presented questionable paper trails, and encouraged wealthy supporters to commit tax fraud through donations of lesser objects, while enjoying an institutional culture of sexual peccadilloes and personal perks. Yet, during the last 20 years, the tide of public and legal opinion gradually turned against the old-line museum philosophy of "optical due diligence," as aggrieved archaeologists and source countries questioned such acquisitions as the titular statue, an enormous piece persistently rumored to have been looted from Italy in 1979. The central figure throughout the book is former Getty antiquities curator Marion True, whose story also carries the weight of classical tragedy. She rose from humble beginnings to a position of academic influence and personal wealth, in part by simply following the model of willful institutional blindness established by her predecessors regarding ethically suspect acquisitions. Even as True was alienating her peers by advocating new approaches with respect to source countries, Italian investigators were building a case against her that proved a few dealers had coordinated looting for decades, making clear the collusion of True and the wealthy donors she'd cultivated. The authors deftly control their complex narrative and large cast, only occasionally resorting to purple prose.

An engrossing tale of greed and malfeasance within the uppermost strata of high culture.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780151015016
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/24/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 378,434
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

JASON FELCH is an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times. In 2006 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting for exposing the role of the J. Paul Getty Museum and other American museums in the black market for looted antiquities. His work has also been honored by Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Education Writers Association, the National Association of Science Writers, and the Society for Environmental Journalism. He lives in Pasadena, California, with his wife and son.

RALPH FRAMMOLINO reported for nearly 25 years at the Los Angeles Times, where he and former colleague Jason Felch were finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for their articles about the J.Paul Getty Museum and looted antiquities. His work has also appeared in the New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review. Frammolino is now a media consultant for various aid projects in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, where he trains working journalists on investigative reporting techniques and right to information laws.

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Read an Excerpt

1
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.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Part I Windfalls and Cover-ups

1 The Lost Bronze 9

2 A Perfect Scheme 26

3 Too Moral 38

4 Worth the Price 57

5 An Awkward Debut 74

6 The Windblown Goddess 84

7 The Cult of Persephone 97

Part II The Temptation of Marion True

8 The Aptly Named Dr. True 113

9 The Fleischman Collection 124

10 A Home in the Greek Islands 135

11 Conforti's Men 147

12 The Getty's Latest Treasure 159

13 Follow the Polaroids 169

14 A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing 179

Part III "After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?"

15 Troublesome Documents 195

16 Mountains and Molehills 206

17 Rogue Museums 224

18 The Reign of Munitz 234

19 The April Fools' Day Indictment 252

20 Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous 261

21 True Believers 273

22 Bright Line 299

Epilogue: Beyond Ownership 309

Acknowledgments 315

Notes 318

Further Reading 360

Index 362

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2011

    Would not recommend...

    A long review of the legal trouble that have encompassed the Getty since the 70's. The sample chapter that you can download for free is a misrepresentation of the book. It goes from an exciting opening chapter to a book full of monotonous legal facts that are repeated over and over throughout the entire book. Boring.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 10, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    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 May 27, 2011

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