Jason Felch

Journalist and co-author of Chasing Aphrodite, an exposé of the illicit antiquities trade.

Investigative reporter Jason Felch has written prize-winning pieces on public education, forensic science, and corruption in the art world. The 2011 SAFE Beacon Award recognizes his achievement in the Pulitzer Prize finalist Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, along with co-author Ralph Frammolino.

In their reporting for the Los Angeles Times, Felch and Frammolino broke the now-famous antiquities scandal at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and in their book Chasing Aphrodite they detailed how curators turned to the illicit trade to build the Museum’s antiquities collection. In doing so, Felch and Frammolino described how museums in market countries such as the United States deal directly and indirectly with those who encouraged the looting of ancient sites in source countries such as Italy and Greece. The book also documents how Getty Museum officials turned a blind eye to the damage to cultural heritage and stands as essential evidence against the institution’s long-standing public claims to the contrary.

Chasing AphroditeAs the authors reveal, one of the central characters in the story, former Getty Museum curator Marion True, personified this contradiction. In 1988, for example, soon after completing the acquisition of a looted statue of Aphrodite, which the Getty Museum eventually repatriated to Italy, True denounced a Cleveland dealer for trying to sell a Cypriot mosaic of dubious origin. Five years later, when offered a gold Greek funerary wreath of suspect origin inside a Swiss bank vault, True declined the offer as “too dangerous.” Yet, a few months later, she changed her mind and recommended the wreath, which the Getty Museum purchased (and eventually returned to Greece after the wreath’s illicit origin came to light). In 1995 she urged the adoption of an acquisitions policy which ostensibly prevented the Getty from acquiring artifacts that did not come from “established, well-documented collections.” Yet, the following year, she recommended the acquisition of the $80 million Fleischman Collection, most of which had no published provenance prior to 1994. She then condemned the looting of archaeological sites at a Rutgers University conference in 1998 and urged museums not to acquire suspect artifacts that had recently surfaced on the market. This dichotomy continued until her resignation in 2006, amid impending legal action that resulted in the Getty Museum returning some forty objects to Italy and Greece. The success of these legal cases can in part be attributed to the insider documents and dealings described in the Los Angeles Times by Felch and Frammolino.

Chasing Aphrodite has also been influential in changing the public’s understanding of museum policy, heritage preservation, antiquities law and moral hazard, presented in compelling detail and completely accessible to the public.

The book ends with the sentiment that, after the scandal and return of objects from the J. Paul Getty Museum, a new era has dawned in the collecting practices of wealthy museums:

Like a heroine in a Greek tragedy, it took True’s downfall to achieve the goal that guided much of her career. Her undoing forged a peace between collectors and archaeologists, museums and source countries. The new era she called for at Rutgers in 1998 is now within sight. It is one in which museums and countries alike will look beyond questions of ownership and embrace, as True said, the “sharing of cultural properties, rather than their exploitation as commodities.”

AWARD CEREMONY AND RECEPTION

It was a glittering evening at the Savore Ristorante in the heart of Soho in New York City for the fifth annual SAFE Beacon Awards. The event drew authors, academics, attorneys, publishing and marketing professionals, SAFE members and friends to honor 2011 Award Winners Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, co-authors of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum.

The Beacon Awards recognize those individuals who strive to preserve humanity’s most precious non-renewable resource: the intact evidence of our undiscovered past.

Guests enjoyed a delectable gourmet dinner in an intimate candlelight setting animated by lively conversation. It was a time to meet new acquaintances and catch up with old friends. Cindy Ho, the founder of SAFE, welcomed the gathering, remarking how their presence was a much appreciated testimony to their support of SAFE’s mission to safeguard the world’s cultural legacies. She also thanked all the volunteers who continue to work so hard for SAFE.

Irina Tarsis highlighted the ongoing work of SAFE, including planned education efforts and the current web site redesign. Senta German related the upcoming review by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) of applications by Belize and Bulgaria. CPAC’s role is to advise the President of the United States (or his designee) on appropriate reaction to requests from other governments in protecting their cultural heritage. Restrictions by the U.S. on importing artifacts undermine the incentives for looters to plunder ancient sites by eliminating the American market.

In bestowing the Beacon Awards, Cindy spoke of the importance of Chasing Aphrodite and the contributions made by Felch and Frammolino.

Chasing Aphrodite is an exposé of the devastating effects of trading in black market and illegal antiquities, and starkly depicts how greed and the disregard of laws can undermine the foundations of our cultural institutions,” said Ho.

SAFE is proud to recognize Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino for their investigative reporting that reveals the dark side of the antiquities trade. The truth that they tell has reverberated not only in the art world, but among all people who cherish our collective past.

As investigative reporters at the Los Angeles Times, Felch and Frammolino broke the story of the J. Paul Getty Museum and its role in buying illicit and looted antiquities. Felch and Frammolino were finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for their series of articles about the case. The book was drawn from their reports.

Called “a riveting cautionary tale” by the Los Angeles Times, Chasing Aphrodite is an indictment against the museum industry when an insatiable drive for antiquities corrupts cultural institutions and circumvents international law.

“This is a human story of greed and avarice,” said Frammolino. “This story is important because we’re talking about humanity’s culture and humanity’s history. Preserving these is very important because that’s how we learn about the past. When collectors obtain objects with no past, we’re encouraging looting and we’re destroying knowledge.”

Felch compared the illicit antiquities trade and Getty’s complicity to recent scandals involving well established art and other institutions. “This story reveals details we didn’t know before about cultural institutions we cherish. It tells us what happens to institutions that have lost their way and gone astray from their missions. The more people know and understand this, the more likely these institutions can get back on track and operate for their true purpose: to help us understand the ancient world.”

After the award presentations Felch and Frammolino signed copies of Chasing Aphrodite.


SAFE wants to thank the members of the 2011 Beacon Awards Committee and other volunteers for their efforts in producing such a memorable event: Katherine Lewis, Azure Wheeler, Toni Mione and Shirley Gazsi.