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July 27th, 2011 MATT BUCKINGHAM | Books
 

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino Chasing Aphrodite

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In 1984, the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles sold all its stock in Getty Oil and diversified its investment portfolio, almost tripling its original endowment to $2 billion. This made the J. Paul Getty Museum, essentially a rich man’s knockoff of an ancient Roman villa in Malibu, the richest museum in the world and the Getty Trust the second-largest charitable trust after the Ford Foundation.

The art found at the Getty was now literally priceless. Literally priceless in two senses: If the Getty wanted something on the world art market, money was no object, and tickets for admission to the museum were free. When, for example, an Australian businessman tried to buy Van Gogh’s Irises for almost $54 million in 1989 but didn’t have the cash to complete the purchase, the Getty quietly stepped in and bought the iconic masterpiece.

From its earliest days, however, the acquisitiveness enabled by the Getty’s almost unbounded wealth was a curse rather than a blessing for the institution. Chasing Aphrodite (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 375 pages, $28) by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino of the Los Angeles Times traces how the Getty knowingly bought classical antiquities looted from countries like Greece and Italy for decades while at the same time pushing for museum reforms to end the illegal trade.

Along the way, the authors introduce their readers to a gallery of almost mythic heroes and roguish villains as well as at least one tragic figure in the classical Greek sense. Among them is a scrappy Italian prosecutor named Paolo Ferri who worked for almost a decade to build a case against two dealers of looted antiquities and their biggest customer, Getty curator Marion True. True was a working-class girl from Oklahoma who rose to curator of the world’s richest museum and shaped its vision more than any other single person before succumbing to the most human of temptations.

The Getty, as framed by the authors, was a sinking ship that couldn’t decide which to throw overboard—its stolen antiquities collection or its tainted curator—and ultimately lost both. The Getty eventually gutted its antiquities holdings, returning 40 contested pieces to Italy, including a 7-foot statue of a windswept goddess long believed to be the Aphrodite of the book’s title. True was forced to resign and went on trial for conspiracy in Italy, a proceeding that dragged on for five years before the statute of limitations expired.

Chasing Aphrodite is a masterpiece of classic investigative journalism, which the Pulitzer Prize finalists pieced together from internal documents leaked to them by confidential sources within the Getty. With these documents, the reporters, like museum conservators, have meticulously restored a breathtaking story of institutional hubris as arresting as any Greek sculpture.


GO: Co-author Jason Felch appears at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, July 27. Free.

 
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