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

August 1, 2011

Jason Felch Talks About the World’s Second Oldest Profession

Despite the fact that it was a warm summer’s evening and there was a band playing great music in the street, dozens of Portlanders turned out to hear the riveting story of the 7 1/2 foot tall limestone and marble statue named Aphrodite.  Its looting and the Getty Museum involvement led to an investigation that subsequently brought down the illegal practice of museums buying illicitly acquired ancient artworks – for now, that is.  Author Jason Felch was at Powell’s talking about his new book, Chasing Aphrodite:  The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum (Co-authored by Ralph Frammolino) that chronicles this amazing story.
Felch was just a green, newly-minted reporter with the Los Angeles Times when he was assigned the story involving the Getty Museum in 2004.   He knew zip about art.  Felch says,  “Right off the bat, we’re pissing off the most powerful people in L.A.  They don’t deal with us, they don’t answer our questions.  They go to the publisher who they play golf with and they start saying ‘who the hell do you have running around out there asking us questions.  Who does this guy think he is and call off your dogs.’  So thankfully, at the time, our paper was led by some of the best investigative editors in the country and they got our backs and we pressed ahead despite a lot of political pressure to not pursue this.”
What Felch and Frammolino did was follow a paper trail over a period of five years that revealed the misdeeds and hubris of the Getty and other large and very well-known museums.  Felch says, “Since the 1970s,  American museums have knowingly purchased stolen property.  They’ve claimed that they didn’t know it. They knew and everybody in the art world knew and they did it thinking that they were doing us a favor.”
But all is not totally bleak he says, “The museums in the United States that really got in trouble are the ones that really made the most dramatic progress and honestly they should be applauded for making a turn on an issue that they have been in the wrong in for many years.  The revolution really happened somewhat quickly when it eventually happened.  So the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan Museum and the Getty Museum were probably the three biggest offenders and they’ve all since cleaned up their acts.  They’re very cautious about what they buy these days.  The ones I would keep an eye out for are your regional museums.  Those are museums that got a late start – kind of like the Getty – and often times they’re well endowed and they’re looking to catch up. There are a lot of regional museums around the United States that are actively collecting ancient art that I would  be wary of.”
Also Felch says, “Watch what happens to the objects being looted from archaeological sites in Iraq. It’s not clear where the objects are going because the market is not yet awash in Iraqi material because everybody knows that if it’s Iraqi it’s looted.  They’re at a warehouse in Jordan or somewhere, most likely, and they’re cooling off until everybody forgets about the Iraq war.  Then they’re going to start to creep onto the market and what you’re going to see is your local museum holding a fundraiser for its new Iraq wing.  Fifteen years from now you’re going to see a whole lot of collecting in this area. Hold me to it.”
Chasing Aphrodite is filled with lust, avarice, bribery, and deceit and has movie-ready protagonists such as the rich art dealer who drives a Bentley, a miserable oil baron who had five sons with five wives, a curator with a desire to live the highlife and Italian art cops driving Masseratis. To make things even more interesting, the mafia controls the antiquities trade.  Oh and be on the lookout – this story may be coming to a screen near you.
So what is the world’s second oldest profession?  It’s looting, of course.

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