Aphrodite of the Muckrakers

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Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum is the story of how the J. P. Getty Museum has collected Greek and Roman antiquities since its inception in 1953, told from the inside out. The authors, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, both reporters from the Los Angeles Times (Frammolino has since moved on), have assembled an extraordinary array of sources with which they tell a story the Getty wants no one to know: how the museum knowingly purchased looted and fake antiquities, misled foreign governments in their attempts to reclaim stolen property, laundered stolen antiquities through an illegal tax scheme and adopted extraordinarily conservative acquisitions policies while at the same time actively buying from the illicit antiquities market. It is a story of the astounding mismanagement of opportunities, resources, human capital and global reputation. Put one way, it is confirmation of the worst many suspected about curatorial caprice and institutional duplicity. Put another way, if you’re interested in issues surrounding the illicit antiquities trade, collectors and the Classical world, you can’t put the book down.

First of all, it is the materials with which this story has been put together that are significant. In the Notes section at the end of the book, Felch and Frammolino describe these:

The backbone of this account is a trove of thousands of pages of confidential Getty records provided by half of dozen key sources at various levels of the institution. They include a confidential institutional history of the Getty as narrated by two generations of its leaders; a complete list of art purchased by the museum from 1954 to 2004, with the price paid for each piece; the private correspondence and contemporaneous handwritten notes of several top Getty officials; museum files on the contested antiquities and suspect dealers; and records detailing several internal investigations conducted over the years by various teams of Getty lawyers (319).

These were compiled, acquired and collected over the several years Felch and Frammolino worked the Getty Museum beat for the LA Times, for which they were finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Chasing Aphrodite thus is the conclusion of their efforts on the case and reflects the authors’ depth of knowledge and considerable analytical skill.

Felch and Frammolino begin at the beginning, with the foundation of the Getty and it is an unexpected story. The John Paul Getty Museum, unlike other major American collecting institutions which include a considerable amount of antiquities, was founded by one individual and with the sole purpose of affording this one man a tax write off. Its domestic peer institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, all begun in the decade of the 1870s, were founded directly in association with an educational institution or explicitly aimed at public consumption in the nineteenth century tradition of civic education. Unlike these quasi-academic institutions, the Getty, from its beginning, was run not by scholars of art, those with experience administering cultural institutions or people familiar with non-profit work. Rather, from its inception, the Getty was run by businessmen, mostly from Wall Street and the energy industries. Indeed, John Paul Getty himself ran the museum until his death in 1976, at which point it was overseen by a board he had stacked with his accountant, a Getty Oil executive, Harold Berg, Getty Oil’s outside attorney, his two sons Ronald and Gordon and his Italian art advisor, Frederico Zeri. To say that the culture of for-profit, big-game, arrogant corporate leadership pervaded the museum for it first decades would be an understatement. This management style, as the authors illustrate, fostered, among other things, extravagant acquisitions regardless of the liability of such and ineffectual curatorial oversight.

Indeed, the corporate and decidedly un-academic flavor of the Getty was heightened after the death of its founder through the reorganization of the Getty museum into the Getty Trust, an umbrella organization for the museum but also other arts-related institutions. Who was hand-picked for the development of this bold new vision? The just retired chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (not a body known for its work in the arts), Harold M. Williams. Under Williams, Jiri Frel served as the first curator of antiquities, hired away from the Greek and Roman department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Frel was academic enough, for sure, having studied at the Sorbonne and taught at Charles University in his native Czechoslovakia as well as Princeton University. But, as Felch and Frammolino describe, Frel’s knowledge of ancient art was far outweighed by his breathtaking corruption.

During Frel’s eleven year tenure at the Getty he instigated a massive tax fraud scheme which was hatched together with the antiquities dealer Bruce McNall, whose silent partner and supplier was Robert Hecht (currently under indictment in Italy for conspiracy to traffic stolen antiquities). The scheme would run like this: those on McNall’s rich and famous client list interested in tax deductions would “buy” an antiquity from McNall, supplied by Hecht. The buyer would then turn around and donate the piece to the Getty at a greatly inflated value, thanks to the appraisals of Frel’s friend Jerome Eisenberg, owner of Royal Athena Gallery. The Getty received a steady stream of smaller antiquities to “round out” the collection, pieces which the board would likely not have approved for purchase (as they were desirous of larger and more impressive acquisition) and the donors received a tax write off. The numbers on this scheme are staggering; for four years, over one hundred donors gave six thousand antiquities to the J. Paul Getty Museum, the wealthiest museum in the world, at a value of $14.7 million dollars (36).

A win/win; a victimless crime. No harm, no foul. No doubt this is how Frel figured it. But there is harm here, and plenty of it. Never mind good old-fashioned tax fraud, which bilks the US government and puts a greater tax burden on those who actually pay taxes. The harm here is in the source of these antiquities. Hecht, as illustrated in Peter Watson and Cecellia Todeschini’s The Medici Conspiracy and evidenced by his indictment, was supplied by tombaroli. Six thousand small pieces over four years are no doubt the yield of tens of thousands of plundered tombs and villas, illegally dug trenches and holes. What was lost to “fund” this tax scheme and the “rounding out” of the Getty’s collection? We will never know.

One wonders what Frel’s intentions really were with this scheme. The authors argue that Frel’s interest was scholarly, and to grow a study collection for the museum. Yet, when Frel is asked to leave in 1984 after the tax scheme and other equally radical improprieties are revealed to upper management, the authors report that some 800 objects were found with little or no documentation (55). As part of his scheme, Frel would regularly falsify the ownership histories of the “donated” objects, which corrupted the academic record. If Frel’s aims at the Getty were scholarly, how can this be accounted for? The authors attribute Frel’s behavior to his status as a political refugee from the Eastern block (26). This may or may not be true but certainly his dishonesty and vice found a unique level of tolerance (or willful ignorance) within the particularly corporate management environment of the Getty.

But, corporate style, poor oversight and shenanigans in the antiquities department didn’t end with Frel. Harold Williams’ retirement from the Getty Trust in 1998 brought in Barry Munitz as President and CEO. Indeed, Munitz has an academic background, a PhD in comparative literature from Princeton but, instead of teaching or research, he almost immediately began working in university administration, becoming chancellor of the University of Houston’s Main Campus at a sage 35 years old. He then left academia for real estate and forestry speculation as well as serving as chairman of the Texas Savings and Loan Association. The Texas Savings and Loan Association was seized by federal regulators in 1988, the fifth largest bank failure in American history at the time. From there Munitz had moved on to Chancellor of the California State University system, the largest higher education system in the country. In this position, Munitz was one of the most influential leaders in employing a for-profit model to higher education, viewing students as customers. When Munitz replaced Williams as the head of the Getty Trust, its valuation was $4.3 billion. Interestingly, not long after his appointment he settled his savings and loan suit and, stemming from the charges of enriching himself with improper and excessive compensation and irresponsible allocation of assets on junk bonds and loss real estate, he was barred from working at a bank or similar business for three years. As the Felch and Frammolino point out, curiously, this did not bar him from directing one of the largest public trusts in the world.

It was under Munitz that Marion True flourished as curator of antiquities and it was her exploits which occupy much of Chasing Aphrodite. True has left an indelible mark on the Getty Villa, the stand-alone collection of antiquities of the Getty Museum; three quarters of the materials on display were acquired under her era. Indeed, True emerges as a genuinely fascinating character in the book, from her working-class, grasping mid-western beginnings to her schizophrenic behavior at the Getty during which she simultaneously championed the rights of source countries to fight the illicit antiquities trade, crafting a uniquely conservative museum acquisitions policy while at the same time actively buying looted antiquities from notorious dealers like Hecht and Medici. There are at least a couple of ways to understand how this was tolerated. One is yet again an example of the sort of corporate hands-off, or just plain incompetent, management style that allowed a tax scheme such as Frel’s to thrive. The other is more nefarious, which is that this behavior was known and condoned.

As Felch and Frammolino describe, True was hired at the Getty by Frel as an assistant in the antiquities department, not yet having finished her Harvard PhD. Before the Getty, True had not only worked for a corrupt Newburyport art dealer Steven Straw, but engaged in an unsuccessful and badly ended business venture with Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine, two of London’s most prominent antiquities dealers. But, with Frel’s departure from the Getty in 1985, True’s star soon rose, being promoted to associate antiquities curator. It was at this point that the Getty experienced its first public scandal involving an antiquities purchase, that of an Archaic Greek Kouros statue.

The story of the Getty Kouros is well known but what Felch and Frammolino add is the inside dope. We learn how Federico Zeri vocally denounced the Kouros a fake and within the institution there was a vigorous debate about its purchase. As a part of this debate, the authors’ research reveals that the curators and managers at the Getty were well aware of the illicit nature of many antiquities on the market. It is made clear from internal documents that Arthur Houghton, associate antiquities curator, had warned Getty management about the questionable origins of the Kouros, a purchase Frel had initiated and for which he provided forged provenance documents.

Indeed, the documentation Chasing Aphrodite presents regarding just how much curators, general counsel, the museum director and CEO of the Getty trust knew about antiquities purchases is one of the most significant aspects of the book. For instance, the authors reveal that during the internal machinations over the purchase of the Kouros, CEO Williams complained to John Walsh, the director of the museum, that “much of the conversation [regarding the liability of purchasing the Kouros] is to the effect that 90% of the objects on the market are presumed to have recently come out of Italy or Greece.” (58) Moreover, Houghton, in conversation with Getty attorney Bruce Bevan (quoted in Houghton’s notes) stated “the reality is that 95% of the antiquities on the market have been found in the last three years.” (61) The Kouros was purchased in 1985 for $7million.

Another example of the knowledge insiders at the Getty had about the illicit antiquities market shown in the book is when, in 1985, Maurice Tempelsman, an art collector, sold eleven of his best pieces from his antiquities collection to the Getty for $16 million, including a spectacular marble group depicting two griffins ripping into a fallen doe, complete with ancient paint still visible. Because of the importance of this and two other pieces, the Getty commissioned Cornelius Vermeule of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to write a study of them to accompany their debut at the museum. In the piece Vermeule argued that the stylistic similarity of the three objects indicated that they were from the same workshop. Being the case that these objects were bought from the market and no information as to their archaeological provenience existed, this was an argument made purely on visual examination. Houghton contacted Medici, from whom Tempelsman originally bought the pieces, to ask what he knew about where they came from. What he gets back from Medici, which he documents in an internal Getty memo, in part refutes Vermeule’s professional opinion but, amazingly, documents the dirty story of the looting of the pieces. “Medici said that he had purchased all three from Italian looters in 1975 or 1976. Two of the objects had indeed been found in the same tomb (which add strength to a same-workshop theory), in some ruins just outside Taranto, a thriving center of art in ancient times. The griffins had been found in the ruins of a villa some 150 to 200 meters away.” (66)

And as another example, among the evidence sized in the Giacomo Medici trial, prosecutor Paolo Ferri finds a letter True had written to Medici asking for information about a group of Greek olpae the Getty had bought from him. Apparently an assistant curator was writing a PhD dissertation on the pieces and True wanted to know where they were from. Medici had written back with helpful details, informing True that the pieces had been found in Monte Abatone, a necropolis in Cerveteri, even describing the tomb itself and offered her other objects that had been found there (212).

These three examples illustrate that those at all levels at the Getty knew that the antiquities they were acquiring were looted. As the authors state in a footnote (331), “from as early as April 1984,….American museum officials were well aware that they were buying recently looted objects, a charge they vehemently deny to this day.”

The story above involving Marion True and her inquiry to Medici about the olpae is one of many which serve to show the duplicity of her character. What is compelling about True isn’t so much the sad story of an individual who knowingly did what she knew was illegal, immoral and harmful to her profession in order to further herself personally; indeed, this is an old story. What is compelling is that this duplicity, ironically, help forge some of the strictest acquisition policies of any US museum.

True and her care for the Getty’s antiquities collection policies began in 1986 when Robin Symes, notorious antiquities dealer, offered her a spectacular, slightly larger than life-sized, extremely rare, limestone and marble acrolith sculpture representing Aphrodite. A sculpture of such type, size and quality would have been known if had been discovered either in the distant past or more recently in legal excavation. It was still encrusted with soil and had fresh breaks which divided it into three equal parts, a classic smuggler’s trick. The sculpture was clearly looted but True was determined to have it despite the recent Kouros scandal. As the Getty’s acquisition policy stood, the purchase of suspect objects was prohibited; it obliged the museum to abide by US and international laws and required inquires with presumed source countries. The director of the Getty Museum, Walsh, who was bent on acquisitions regardless of the law or loss of knowledge, sought to adopt more liberal guidelines, especially those which would accommodate the purchase of the Aphrodite. A new policy, approved by the Getty board in 1987, crafted by Walsh, True and Getty counsel Bevan was trumpeted by True in internal documents as going “beyond what is demanded by the law….and abid[ing] by the highest possible ethical standards.”(91). It in fact made ignoring antiquities laws museum policy; it put the burden of proof on the dealers who offered the pieces for sale and made necessary inquiries to source countries only if there was evidence of looting of such object that the Getty wanted to buy. The first requirement was a joke, given how those at the Getty knew that the dealers from whom they bought antiquities were highly immoral and the second requirement was toothless as most source countries do not have the resources to prevent or even be fully informed about what pieces are being looted and taken across their borders. The Aphrodite would be purchased and the museum would effectively institutionalize its ability to acquire any antiquity it wanted.

Indeed, this would seem to support the notion that True was keen to collect and had little problem with depleting the cultural resources of source countries. However, Felch and Frammolino then describe a curious course of events. True and her associate curator, John Papadopolous, were contacted by an Italian archaeologist working at the site of Francavilla Maritima, who told them that several objects donated under Frel and his tax write-off scams had almost certainly been looted from an area of the site. Papadopolous, working in the archives, established that the pieces had been purchased by Frel with full knowledge that they had been looted from that exact site. The Italian authorities were notified and the Getty laboriously documented the pieces before they were returned. True’s efforts to make right the wrong of her predecessor Frel, won her glowing comments from the Italian Carabinieri and fame for her boldness and forward thinking. Where is True’s acquisitive nature here? How did she square this return with the purchase of the Aphrodite?

Not even ten years later, in 1995, True and Papadopoulos proposed a new and truly stringent acquisition policy for the Getty, far more stringent than any other American museum. No object could be acquired by the Getty, by purchase or donation, which lacked documented ownership prior to the year of the adoption of the policy. But, only the next year, in 1996, the Getty agreed to accept a gift of most of the impressive Fleischman collection of antiquities, many of which were of highly questionable origins. The Getty itself had published the collection (in hopeful anticipation of receiving it later) in 1994 and this was offered by True as sufficient to meet the requirements of the new acquisition policy. Despite this double-dealing, True continued to tout the Getty’s new policy widely. At a 1998 conference at Rutgers University on art, antiquity and the law, she signed a resolution calling for long-term loans of ancient art from source countries and declared she was looking forward to a new era of the “sharing of cultural properties rather than their exploitation as commodities.” Six months later, she appeared at a National Arts Journalism Program event at Columbia University, at which she expressed “serious reservations” about the curatorial activities of museums that kept buying “simply to put material in the basement.” (164)

With this all behind her, in March of 2002, True proposed the purchase of a half life-sized, 3rd century bronze figure of Poseidon. Although it appeared to meet the new 1995 strict Getty acquisition policy (it had been known of since the late 1970’s and its ownership history was clear since then), it was being offered for sale by Robin Symes. As Felch and Frammolino’s sources show, this fact sent up alarm bells in the deputy director’s office and with further investigation by Colby in the General Counsel’s office it was discovered that the import paperwork on the statue had been forged and that in the late 1970’s the piece had been the subject of a major controversy after the Carabinieri told the British media that the statue had been found in the Bay of Naples and smuggled out of Italy. That True could have trusted Symes is unbelievable and that she would have been ignorant of the questionable background of the piece is unbelievable as well. As Ludovic de Walden, an outside counsel hired by the Getty to vet the proposed purchase of the piece is quoted as saying, True would have had to be “insane” to propose buying the Poseidon (221) – that is to say insane given what she had been saying all over the place about how above-board the Getty’s acquisitions would now be.

But, the downfall of Marion True had already begun and was intimately connected to the Italian investigation into the Giacomo Medici illicit antiquities cordata explain?, best described in The Medici Conspiracy. To make a long story short, during the course of the investigation two spectacular pieces of evidence were uncovered. The first is a written organizational chart, an organogram, which illustrated the supply and demand structure of Medici’s market. At the top of the chart, chief among the demand-side players, was listed the J. Paul Getty Museum. The other spectacular piece of evidence was a stash of Polaroids of hundreds of objects freshly looted, several which ended up in American public and private collections, including the Getty. The Getty became a focal point of two separate prosecutions, not only against the museum per se, but against Marion True herself.

The inside perspective which Felch and Frammolino provide on the Italian case against True shows a few things. One is that, indeed, as True has alleged (most recently in LA Times in January, the Getty was more than willing to throw her under the bus despite her years of obsequious service. Already in January of 2001, an internal memo from Getty counsel Richard Martin advised Getty CEO Munitz that True might have to suffer as collateral damage in the fight with the Italians. Then in early 2002, Frieda Tchacos, a long-time antiquities dealer, was arrested on a warrant for her involvement in an Italian looting case. In Ferri’s interrogation of her, she confirmed suspicions that True had helped build the Fleischman collection with the intention of eventually receiving it at the Getty. This gave Ferri enough for conspiracy charges against True and would become central to the Italian case against her. In late 2002 the Frederick Schultz case ends in a conviction on one felony count of violating the National Stolen Property Act for trafficking in illicit Egyptian antiquities in the US. This sent out shock waves and Felch and Frammolino describe a confidential meeting among the directors of select American museums (the MMA, Cleveland, Chicago and the Getty) at which it was determined that the requests and legal actions from source countries were a genuine problem. The conclusions of the meeting were only made more urgent for the Getty as at the end of 2003, the Medici trial began, featuring much damning evidence involving the institution. In December of 2004 Medici was found guilty of trafficking stolen Italian antiquities (a decision which was upheld on appeal in 2009) and Marion True was next in the crosshairs of the Italian court.

Judge Guglielmo Muntoni, who had presided over the Medici trial, was assigned to the preliminary hearing of the True case. The authors’ interviews with Muntoni reveal that he had sympathy with True, believing that she wanted to change things in American museums but her job required her to acquire looted antiquities. Be that as it may, Muntoni saw his way clear in April of 2005 to hand down an indictment ordering True to stand trial.

Back Stateside, the investigations and secretly leaked documents upon which Chasing Aphrodite are based began to be revealed in a string of articles in the LA Times and, at the end of 2005, the most damning revelation about True hit the presses: she had accepted a personal loan from the antiquities dealer Christos Michaelides and repaid that with another personal loan, this from the Fleischmans, both people from whom the Getty has purchased antiquities. This was the final straw which led the Getty board to ask for True’s resignation. (266) The balance of Chasing Aphrodite follows the shuttle diplomacy between the Getty and Italy, instigated in January 2006 by the new CEO Michael Brand, which results in an agreement in August of 2007 for the return of forty objects, including the Aphrodite acrolith. The removal from the Getty Villa galleries of the materials returned to Italy marks the close of Chasing Aphrodite. As the authors briefly note, in November of 2010 the case against the former Getty antiquities curator was dropped due to the statue of limitations on the case having been reached. This was an expected outcome; it was understood that the indictment was enough, to send a message to American museums. As reported on a New York Times blog at the time, Ferri was quoted as saying that the trial had worked as a signal to museums; with the trial, he said, “Italy showed that it wanted to break with past practices.” True was collateral damage, indeed.

Felch and Frammolino, at the very end of their Epilogue, look back at the era of Marion True at the Getty and surmise that it is a thing of the past; that the fall of Marion True has forged “a peace between collectors and archaeologists, museums and source countries.” (312) This is a desirable sentiment and indeed a fine way to end a book the likes of which they have so aptly written. It is, unfortunately, not particularly true. One need merely browse through, for instance, the postings on David Gill’s blog Looting Matters to see the activities of institutions such as the Mougins Museum of Classical Art in France, the Miho Museum in Japan, the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, Spain, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, or the Princeton University Art Museum to ascertain that there is little peace. And, these examples include only works of art from the ancient Classical world. Indeed, there is also little peace between the museums and collectors all over the world who are quietly amassing collections of African, Southeast Asian, Far Eastern and South and Central American art and the pillaged and often indigent and politically unstable regions from which these objects come.

If only a peace could be forged without an end to the demand side of the illicit antiquities trade. But, it cannot; as long as there is a robust demand for antiquities they will be looted. As long as any archaeological site is violated, historical monument is compromised or museum is broken into in order to feed the demand for the purchase of antiquities regardless of the loss of knowledge, we all, as inheritors of the earth’s (not just the Classical world’s) cultural heritage, must strive to bring this filthy, dark, destructive market to public attention. Chasing Aphrodite is a work in this vein and this author is grateful for it.

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Senta German

Dr. Senta German, an Associate Professor at Montclair State College earned a BA degree from Temple University and a PhD in Art History and Archaeology from Columbia University. Her fields of specialty are the Greek Bronze and Iron Ages, gender studies, and the illicit antiquities trade. She has over 10 years of excavation experience in Greece, Israel, the American East Coast and Alaska.

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