May 29, 2011

ARCA Blog Interviews Jason Felch, co-author of "Chasing Aphrodite"

Getty Goddess now home/
Chasing Aphrodite
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

ARCA Blog: How did you feel, being so close to this story, seeing "Aphrodite" being returned to her homeland? Did you understand more about the statute by visiting the area she came from?
Jason: We were thrilled to be able to attend the inauguration of the Getty goddess in her new home in Aidone, Sicily. For both Ralph and me, the trip -- which coincided with the release of Chasing Aphrodite -- really brought a feeling of closure to our own "chase," which began more than six years ago. Seeing the goddess -- can't really call her Aphrodite anymore -- in Sicily brought up some bittersweet feelings. The archaeological museum there sees about 17,000 visitors a year, far fewer than the 400,000 than visit the Getty Villa. Sicilian officials are hoping the goddess' return will change that, but certainly fewer people will see her now, and LA has lost an important masterpiece. That said, it was VERY powerful to see the statue in her new context, a stone's throw from Morgantina, the Greek ruins from where she was looted in the late 1970s. Surrounded by eerily similar figures depicting the fertility goddesses Persephone and Demeter, the statue takes on a startling new meaning.
ARCA Blog: What do you think we can expect from the Getty's new chief, James Cuno, author of "Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage?" What do you think the Getty is saying here with the appointment of Cuno?
Jason: The Getty made a very curious choice with Jim Cuno. On the one hand, he's an obvious candidate and a widely respected figure in the museum world. But on the issue he is most passionate and outspoken about, he is on the opposite end of the reformed Getty, which really has been leading reform efforts on the antiquities issue. In recent years, particularly after Phillip de Montebello stepped down at the Met, Cuno has been the leading voice for a position that has fewer and fewer supporters. Why would the progressive Getty chose such a regressive leader? From speaking with Cuno and several board members involved in the decision, it sounds like he was selected for everything except his views on antiquities collecting. Neil Rudenstein, who as President of Harvard was Cuno's boss for a time, said he personally disagrees with Cuno on that issue but thinks he'll nevertheless make a good chief executive of the Trust. Cuno himself has said he'll honor (and keep) the Getty's acquisition policy, which bars acquisitions of antiquities unless they have clear provenance dating to 1970. So we'll have to wait and see. Will the Italians curb the generosity of their loans? Will the Getty find ways to wiggle around its strict policy? Or by hiring Cuno, has the Getty cleverly "co-opted" one of the biggest opponents to to reform in this area? Time will tell. Meantime, I'd watch closely to see who Cuno chooses as the Getty's new museum director...and who that person chooses as the museum's antiquities curator.
ARCA Blog: Since I remember her even at the old Getty Villa in Malibu, I was a bit sorry to see "Aphrodite" leave Southern California. Did you become attached to her while you were researching your book?
Jason: Frankly, I never found the goddess to be the most beautiful of the objects at the Getty. In my view, she is far more important than she is beautiful, and that importance was largely squandered during her 22 years at the Getty -- she was almost entirely ignored by the scholarly community, thanks in large part to her scandalous past. Now that she's back in Sicily, I hope to see a new wave of scholarship that tries to restore her context and meaning. I feel more wistful about some of the other masterpieces the Getty returned -- the amazing griffons that adorn the cover of our book, the golden funerary wreath that may have rested on the head of a relative of Alexander the Great. Those are objects I'll miss seeing regularly. 
Reception in Aidone, Italy 
ARCA Blog: When you were in Italy, did you wonder if anyone in the crowd had made money from selling "Aphrodite" to the Getty? How well were you able to explain this transaction in your book?
Jason: Yes, there is plenty of irony here. In effect, the goddess has been returned to those who looted her, broke her into pieces and smuggled her out of the country for profit. Aidone is a very small town, and I was told that several of the locals who attended the ceremonies used to be clandestini -- the Sicilian term for looters. In reporting the book, we were able to recreate some of the illicit journey the goddess took from Morgantina to the Getty -- where it was found; how it was broken and smuggled out of the country to Chiasso, Switzerland; how it was shopped around (for a far lower price!) before the Getty bought it for $18 million in 1988. But much of that account is based on whispers and confidential law enforcement sources. There are conflicting aspects of the account, and the full story remains to be told. I'm hoping more details will emerge now that the statue is back home and the statute of limitations has expired on any criminal charges. In particular, it would be very important to know the precise find spot, which could then be formally excavated. But secrets have a way of staying secret in Sicily. We may never know the full truth.
Jason Felch will be signing the non-fiction book he co-authored with Ralph Frammolino, "Chasing Aphrodite, The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum", at 7 p.m. on May 31 at Book Soup in Los Angeles.

You may read more about the trip home for the Getty goddess here on the website of Chasing Aphrodite.

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