Chasing Aphrodite, the Getty in the crosshairs

June 27, 2011

Chasing Aphrodite: the hunt for looted antiquities at the world’s richest museum by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino is a well written and insightful look into the string of acquisition scandals at the Getty Museum’s Antiquities Department beginning with an early tax scam that would soon feed into the ethically…troubling…questionable…wrong acquisitions.  Most of the book revolves around the purchase and donations of looted Greek and Roman statues, vases, and jewelry, a story previously told by the author’s in their Pulitzer Prize nominated series for the LA Times in 2006.

How does a new museum with lots of money grow to become one of the best museums in the world? Not without cutting some corners.  But the interesting part of the tale is in how the Getty and/or its curators, staff, and board conspired with looters and dealers to overlook and overcome the legal and ethical barriers to buying and importing goods of unknown provenance.  For that you will have to read the book, which I do recommend.

Two points of note: first, the conservators and the Getty Conservation Institute come out looking smart and responsible (if weak in the face of curatorial control); second, the book is a little all too neat of a story.  The authors never challenge the ethics of national patrimony laws and seem a little too quick to paint some actors as the “bad guys” and others as mislead, but a book rarely can tell the whole story.

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