Showing posts with label Chasing Aphrodite. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chasing Aphrodite. Show all posts

February 26, 2020

Valerie Higgins returns to Amelia this summer to teach “Antiquities and Identity” at ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection

By Edgar Tijhuis 

This year, the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection will be held from May 28 through August 12, 2020 in the beautiful heart of Umbria in Amelia, Italy. In the months leading up to the start of the program, this year’s lecturers will be interviewed. 

Valerie Higgins
Can you tell us something about your background and work?

I am the Program Director for the Master’s program in Sustainable Cultural Heritage and Associate Professor in Archaeology at The American University of Rome. I am an archaeologist by training, and I began my professional career as an archaeologist working in local government before returning to university to complete a Ph.D., studying human remains from a medieval Italian monastery site.

After completing a visiting university appointment in New Zealand, I returned to work in Rome where I was lucky enough to get a tenured position at the American University. Being based in Rome, a lot of my teaching has been outside at the monuments themselves, rather than in the classroom, and it was this that first sparked my interest in cultural heritage. The daily contact with the monuments and witnessing the issues of caring for such a massive patrimony, gradually led to me becoming more and more involved in that side of archaeology. Looting of antiquities is a huge problem in Italy and it has deep historical roots. An important part of tackling looting is to understand the societal context in which it takes place.

What do you feel is the most relevant aspect of your course?

The course incorporates discussion of contentious issues that are currently in the news, such as the role of museums and their obligation (or not) to reflect social issues, decolonization of heritage and museums, issues of identity politics relating to ownership, etc. Those of us who are engaged in protecting heritage need to get involved in these debates and we need to ensure that the discussion are well informed. This is increasingly difficult in an era of fake news and short soundbites.

What do you hope participants will get out of the courses?

I hope participants will understand the broader context behind art crime and will feel a greater engagement with topical issues. I hope that they will have a more profound understanding of the background to current disputes. Increasingly, journalistic sources present arguments in a very one-sided way and reduce complex arguments to emotive headlines. I hope that participants will appreciate more the complexity and long history that underlies many current issues.

What would a typical day be like in your classroom?

My classes are very interactive. I like everyone to contribute to class discussions from their own experiences. Every year at ARCA we get participants from all over the world, with diverse professional and personal backgrounds so when we are discussing issues we can get many different viewpoints, and this is very stimulating.

While each year participants are very enthusiastic about your courses, is there anything you learn from them in class?

A huge amount! I encourage everybody to take the topics we cover in the class and apply them to situations they face in their professional lives back home. As a result, I get to hear about new places, new disputes, new heritage sites, new groups and it is always fascinating to me. I regularly incorporate in my teaching at the American University information I have gained from ARCA participants and in that way I hope that I spread the knowledge.

In anticipation of your courses, what book, article, or movie would you recommend to participants?

I enjoyed the book ‘Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum’ by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. It is written by two journalists, not academics, but it conveys very well the attitudes that were current in the museum world in the last part of the twentieth century and the first decade of this century and the almost total disregard for ethics that should have governed museum acquisitions. I would also recommend the BBC podcasts in the series the Museum of Lost Objects. This series looked at antiquities that were lost or looted in Iraq, Syria, India and Pakistan. I like the series because it focuses on the human cost of looting not the economic cost.

What makes the yearly ARCA program so unique?

The people! Every year we get an incredible mix of people taking and teaching the courses in the program and then, of course, during the conference this number increases dramatically. The setting in Amelia also makes the program special. Amelia is a small intimate setting where it is easy to meet people outside of class, over a coffee.

Which other course in the program would you love to follow yourself and why?

I am very interested in Marc Balcells course because he studies art crime as a sociological phenomenon rather than on an individual case by case basis. I believe this aspect is very underdeveloped. Although we will always need law enforcement as a backstop, the greatest impact on reducing art crime is to have a greater understanding of the underlying social forces. Very few people do this and Marc does it so well.

Is there anything you can recommend for future participants to do in Amelia or Umbria?

Amelia is set in beautiful countryside and there are some great walks and picnic spots in the countryside outside the walls. Don’t think that you always have to get on a bus or train to have a great day out!

Are there any funny or interesting things you experienced in Italy, outside class?

Italians certainly have their own ways of doing things which often seem incomprehensible to foreigners. It is not uncommon to go to see something that is supposed to be open and you find it isn’t. However, if you ask around there may be someone who can help you to get in or you might find something else to see that you did not even know existed. Italy is full of fantastic sites that are not in any guidebook or on any website, you may end up having an even better day out. It pays to be flexible and laid back.

What is your experience with the yearly ARCA conference in June? 

I find the conference a very useful way to catch up with what is going on in the field and also people working in the field. The refreshments breaks are almost as valuable as the presentations. To my knowledge, no other conference has such an eclectic mix of people from museums, law enforcement and academia.

Anything else…. The most important thing is to enjoy yourself in Amelia!

For a detailed prospectus and application materials or for general questions about this postgraduate program please contact us at 


Edgar Tijhuis serves as the Academic Director at ARCA and is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana. He is responsible for the postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection and since 2009, has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program.

November 21, 2014

Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis identifies rare Sardinian idol to be auctioned at Christie's December 11 in New York City

Image of the Sardinian idol from the Medici
archive (provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)
In the forthcoming December 11, 2014 auction at Christie's in New York, lot 85 'A SARDINIAN MARBLE FEMALE IDOL OZIERI CULTURE, CIRCA 2500-2000 B.C.', 'PROPERTY FROM THE MICHAEL AND JUDY STEINHARDT COLLECTION', is estimated at $800,000-1,200,000. Its provenance as listed on the sales documentation by Christie's states: 'with Harmon Fine Arts, New York. with The Merrin Gallery, New York, 1990 (Masterpieces of Cycladic Art, no. 27). Acquired by the current owner, 1997.'

"The object appears in the Medici archive, smashed in 6 pieces, missing the upper left part of its head," according to Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a Forensic Research Archaeologist who teaches ARCA's illicit trafficking course.  According to Tsirogiannis, "The Steinhardt collection has been previously connected with the acquisition of questionable antiquities."

The blog Chasing Aphrodite reported last November in "Steinhardt Redux: Feds Seize Fresco Looted from Italian World Heritage Site, Destined for New York Billionaire" that an earlier action had been taken against the antiquities collector, and stated: "The legal foundation for the case was created by Steinhardt himself twenty years ago with his failed effort -- fought all the way to the US Supreme Court -- to block the seizure of a golden libation bowl that was illegal exported from Sicily."

Dr. Tsirogiannis included an image from the Medici archive with the email announcing his discovery.

The Christie's catalogue can be downloaded here (first, press the button that says 'E-CATALOGUE'. The 150-page e-Catalogue advertises 192 Lots (or objects) to be sold at Rockefeller Plaza on the second Thursday of December. The objects (or 'properties' as described by Christie's on the page that lists the viewing dates prior to the sale) are from various collections. No further information is included about The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Collection in the e-catalogue. The Steinhardts also collect Judaica (Jewish art).

According to Christie's, this Sardinian marble female idol "comes from the Ozieri Culture of Sardinia, which takes its name from the town in the north of the island where the first excavations took place. Only very few such cruciform female idols survive."

by: Catherine Schofield Sezgin

May 11, 2013

Two years after the Stolen Aphrodite is returned, the Getty Museum Exhibits Objects from Sicily with the cooperation of the Italian Government

About two years ago, The Getty Museum returned a Greek statue (formerly known as Aphrodite) to Sicily and appointed James Cuno as chief of the institution infamously associated with stolen antiquities. Today one of the world's richest cultural institutions is cooperating with Italian authorities. "Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome" is an exhibit in Malibu co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell'Identità Siciliana.

The Getty's website includes for the exhibit a list of objects and book edited by Claire L. Lyons, curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum and a specialist in the archaeology of Sicily, Greece, and pre-Roman Italy; Michael Bennett, the Cleveland Museum of Art's first curator of Greek and Roman Art; and Clemente Marconi, James R. McCredie professor in the History of Greek Art and Archaeology at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

Objects include The Mozia Charioteer, a statue discovered in 1976 on the island of Mozia, the first Phoenician colony in Sicily. The book includes an article by maria Luisa Famà on the discovery and ongoing discussion about the interpretation of this object.

August 16, 2012

Q&A with Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch

Editor-in-Chief Noah Charney features "Q&A with Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch" in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of The Journal of Art Crime.

Ralph Frammolino, along with Jason Felch, is the co-winner of the 2012 Eleanor and Anthony Vallombroso Award for Art Crime Scholarship. The award was granted both for Frammolino and Felch’s outstanding journalistic work, and the book that resulted from it, Chasing Aphrodite, about the Getty antiquities scandal and Marion True. To learn more about the award winners, please see the awards section in this issue. Ralph responded to some questions on his own behalf, and on behalf of Jason Felch.

Noah Charney: What is the origin of your interest in the protection of antiquities?
Ralph Frammolino: Prior to Chasing Aphrodite, I was among the blissfully ignorant art-loving masses who regarded museums with a sort of hushed awe while delighting in their inspiring displays of ancient pieces. I accepted without question the good intention of curators, academics and museum officials, never giving a thought to the back story of how they obtained their trove of Greek and Roman pieces (my favorites). Then, as an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I had the rare opportunity to examine this world through a different prism. Jason and others at the paper had just finished an investigation into the finances of the Getty Trust, the richest art institution in the world. The editors at the LA Times teamed me up with Jason to look at problems with the antiquities collection, a move that happened about the time a Roman court indicted Getty antiquities curator Marion True for trafficking in looted artifacts. What we found was shocking, the equivalent of steroids in baseball and pedophile priests in the Catholic Church. The museum world had its own dirty little secret – that it was feasting on the fruits of an illegal trade – and justifying it through sham acquisition policies, temporized denials and archly worded statements about serving posterity. To me, the protection of antiquities became a proxy for cultural colonialism. While I would like to think that the Getty scandal marked a change, I’m no longer sure. In my mind, the Getty’s selection of James Cuno as CEO and Timothy Potts as Museum Director – two openly avowed collecting hawks – marks a giant step backward from the enlightened, culturally sensitive stance the Getty adopted after it was caught with looted masterpieces. Now Cuno and Potts say they want to start to aggressively acquire Middle Eastern antiquities – coincidentally as war, terrorism and regime change have triggered wholesale looting of such artifacts, which will no doubt start bobbing up through the market in the coming years.
You may read this interview in The Journal of Art Crime by subscribing through ARCA's website.

April 11, 2012

"Chasing Aphrodite" Authors Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino Win 2012 Eleanor and Anthony Vallombroso Award for Art Crime Scholarship

ARCA (the Association for Research into Crimes against Art) is pleased to announce the winners of its annual awards for the year 2012. ARCA is an international research group that promotes the study of art crime cultural heritage protection, registered as a 501c3 in the United States and an Associazione Culturale in Italy.

ARCA presents four annual awards.  Nominations are made by ARCA staff, trustees, and members of the editorial board of ARCA’s peer-reviewed publication, The Journal of Art Crime.  The winners are decided by a vote of the trustees, and are presented at ARCA’s annual conference, held in Amelia, Italy on June 23 and 24 of this year. For more information about ARCA or to attend its annual conference, please contact Lynda Albertson: lynda.albertson (at)

Eleanor and Anthony Vallombroso Award for Art Crime Scholarship
Past winners:  Norman Palmer (2009), Larry Rothfield (2010), Neil Brodie (2011)
Shortlisted nominees: Fabio Isman, Sandy Nairne
2012 joint winners: Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

Mr. Felch and Mr. Frammolino are award-winning investigative journalists with the Los Angeles Times newspaper, and co-authors of a book based on their columns, entitled Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum (2011).

Jason Felch is an award winning investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times. In 2006 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting for exposing the role of the J. Paul Getty Museum and other American museums in the black market for looted antiquities. His work has also been honored by the National Journalism Awards, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the NationalAssociation of Science Writers and others. Prior to joining the LA Times in 2004, Jason was a fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting and a freelance writer on topics such as money laundering, arms trafficking and drilling for natural gas in the Peruvian rainforest.

Ralph Frammolino is a veteran journalist who worked at American newspapers for 30 years. He spent 25 of those at the Los Angeles Times, where he covered a variety of beats but mostly concentrated in investigative projects for the Metro staff. His work has been honored by the Associated Press of Texas, Dartmouth University Business School and the Los Angeles Press Club. He was part of the staff effort that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for the coverage of the Northridge Earthquake, and was a co-finalist for a Pulitzer in 2006 for his coverage of the J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities scandal. Since leaving the LA Times in 2008, Mr. Frammolino has been working in South Asia as a teacher, journalism trainer and media development consultant with USAID, the World Bank and other foreign aid donors. He continues to freelance and his stories have appeared in The New York Times, New York Post, LA Times, Columbia Journalism Review and, most recently, Smithsonian Magazine.

Felch and Frammolino are jointly awarded for their outstanding research and scholarship that informed both their investigative articles for the Los Angeles Times and their book, Chasing Aphrodite.

February 10, 2012

Journalist Jason Felch on Antiquities Dealer Robert Hecht Jr. "I found Hecht to be a likable rogue"

Robert Hecht Jr in front of the Euphronios Krater
 at The Met which was returned to Italy; now on display at 
the National Etruscan Museum at the Villa Guilia in Rome.
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Journalist Jason Felch, co-author of Chasing Aphrodite with Ralph Frammolino, reported for The Los Angeles Times the death of the "controversial dealer in classical antiquities," 92-year-old Robert Hecht Jr. who died in Paris just three weeks after Italian judges dismissed looting charges against him.

In their book on the history of The J. Paul Getty Museum's collection practices for antiquities, Chasing Aphrodite (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), Felch and Frammolino describe Hecht as "the preeminent middleman of the classical antiquities trade" who's "network of loyal suppliers reached deep into the tombs and ruins of Greece, Turkey and Italy."
"Since the 1950s, Hecht had sold some of the finest pieces of classical art to emerge on the market. His clients included dozens of American and European museums, universities, and private collectors ... For decades, Hecht single-handedly dominated the antiquities market with his brilliance, brutality and panache.... Even those who sold directly to museums gave Hecht a cut of the deal, earning him the nickname "Mr. Percentage".
Last month, Elisabetta Povoledo for The New York Times reported that the Italian trial against Robert Hecht for "receiving artifacts illegally looted from Italy and conspiring to deal in them" ended with the expiration of the statue of limitations on his alleged crimes.

In fact, although Hecht was banished from Turkey in 1962 for allegedly dealing in ancient coins and from his home in Italy after details of his relationship with Giacomo Medici and Marion True emerged, Hecht was never convicted of any crime. Medici was convicted of trafficking in looted antiquities in 2004 but remains out of jail while he appeals the conviction. The case against Marion True was also dismissed because the statue of limitations expired.

Via email I asked for Jason Felch's thoughts on Robert Hecht whom he had interviewed on the phone after the charges were dismissed last month.  This is Mr. Felch's response:
Hecht was a career criminal, and a remarkably successful one. We've detailed his crimes and the damage they caused in Chasing Aphrodite at length. He was investigated several times in several countries and never successfully prosecuted. Obviously that's a failure of justice. 
That said, I rather liked Hecht. I first met him in 2006 in New York City and continued to talk and occasionally meet with him over the years as I investigated the illicit antiquities trade. During those same years I also met with several other key middlemen in the trade. All were interesting men, but most were unpleasant. Medici was overbearing and boorish, fond of speak of himself in the third person. [Gianfranco] Becchina was hard to read and rather ominous. [Robin] Symes, who I never met but Ralph interviewed in jail in London, came off as a shrill pill. 
Hecht, by contrast, was fascinating and, for the most part, a pleasant dinner companion. He was very sharp, evasive and often witty. He told me his story and the story of the trade, while always remaining coy about certain details. He had deep knowledge about ancient art of all kinds and was clearly passionate about the subject. So much so that he was a lousy businessman, perennially broke because he couldn't say no (and because of a nasty gambling habit.) He was driven less by greed, it seems, than by a passion for the objects and the collector's obsession to possess. He was brilliant at what he did, and had he continued with his studies at the American Academy he would have made a remarkable archaeologist. Instead, he chose the dark side.
He also had a curious sense of honor, one honed during decades of working in a criminal underworld. The latest example was telling. About a month after I sent him a copy of Chasing Aphrodite -- which contain dozens of damning references to Hecht's role in the illicit trade -- he called me at my desk at the Times. Well written, he said, but you got one thing wrong. I asked: Was it that part about you running the illicit antiquities trade for decades? Or perhaps the part where Marion True describes you as an abusive, occasionally violent alcoholic? No, Hecht was upset that we had suggested he had ratted out the competition (something his competitors accused him of in sworn testimony.) He had never done so, he insisted, and our suggesting otherwise was "bad for business."
My job occasionally requires me to spend time with criminals. Many are awful people. I found Hecht to be a likable rogue. Someone should make a movie.
In addition to Chasing Aphrodite, you may find additional information about Robert Hecht Jr.'s career in the book by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities -- From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums (PublicAffairs, 2006).

January 25, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 - ,, 1 comment

National Press Club event: "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum" - Jan. 24, 2012

Jason Felch and Tanya Lervik (ARCA Alum)
by Tanya K. Lervik, ARCA Alum

WASHINGTON DC - Tonight the National Press Club hosted a lively panel discussion on the topic of looted antiquities as exemplified by the J. Paul Getty Museum debacle. The panel, which was moderated by the congenial James Grimaldi, investigative reporter for the Washington Post, featured Jason Felch (in person) and Ralph Frammolino (phoning in from Bangladesh) - the two authors of "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum." The book is the culmination of five years of investigative reporting inspired by a Los Angeles Times series for which Felch and Frammolino were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. They were joined on the panel by Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum and Arthur Houghton, a former curator at the Getty Museum who spoke passionately on behalf of museums.

The discussion covered a wide range of topics – from the basics of international law and the ethical responsibility of museums to the specifics of various transgressions that occurred at the Getty. Felch and Frammolino described the scope of the problem and how they came upon the antiquities story while researching the lavish spending of a Getty executive, Barry Munitz. In the course of their investigation, they were approached by a “Greek chorus of Deep Throats” who informed them that the executive’s indiscretions paled in comparison.

Arthur Houghton commented on his experience at the Getty and recruited members of the audience (including yours truly) to illustrate the donation tax fraud scheme that he discovered was being perpetrated by one-time curator, Jiri Frel. Houghton was instrumental in putting an end to that practice, but he was also the author of the “smoking gun” memo often cited as evidence that the Getty Museum management was aware they were acquiring looted works in contravention of the 1970 UNESCO convention. Houghton also suffered some uncomfortable moments when the conversation turned to his role as the originator of the Getty’s controversial policy of “optical due diligence” wherein they would generally accept an antiquity’s provenance as provided by dealers without stringently investigating its validity.

Before entertaining questions from the packed Press Club Ballroom, the session closed with thoughts for the future. Gary Vikan of the Walters Art Museum proposed that perhaps the best way to address the perennial tug-of-war between art-rich/cash-poor source countries and art-poor/cash rich consumer countries would be to encourage a system of long-term loans. In the wake of the Italian government’s prosecution of former Getty Museum curator, Marion True, the Getty returned a number of important items, but the Italian government also agreed to lend the museum significant items to help fill the void.

Such a model could be used to perpetuate the objectives of “universal museums” aiming to display the breadth of human creativity without swelling the demand for looted antiquities. It would also encourage sharing of knowledge and expertise. Aggressively pursuing a series of long-term loans rather than permanent acquisitions certainly honors the value of our shared human heritage without the potential ethical pitfalls of purchase. Though long-terms loans address neither the issue of private collectors nor their museum bequests, it does give hope for the future. Tonight's discussion served to highlight the pivotal, complex nature of the debate and the far-reaching effects of the Italian efforts to repatriate looted antiquities.

November 14, 2011

ARCA Award Winner Paolo Ferri Featured in Smithsonian Magazine

Last summer ARCA awarded Paolo Ferri, a former Italian State prosecutor, for his work in Art Policing and Recovery, the first award the former Italian State prosecutor had received for his work, Ferri told the audience at the International Art Crime Conference. This month, Dr. Ferri's work is highlighted in an article by Ralph Frammolino in the Smithsonian Magazine, "The Goddess Goes Home." Frammolino is co-author with Jason Felch of "Chasing Aphrodite."

Frammolino discusses the extent of the Getty's purchases in building an antiquities section and Dr. Ferri's role in indicting Marion True.

November 12, 2011

Jason Felch on Deadline LA (Radio): "See No Evil, The Policy of Art Looters at the Getty and other museums"

Barbara Osborn and Harold Bloom conduct a 30 minute discussion with Jason Felch, co-author with Ralph Frammolino of "Chasing Aphrodite", about museums complicity in art theft and the looting of archaeological sites since the accord of UNESCO's 1970 Convention meant to create international cooperation in stopping the sale of illegal antiquities. From essentially laundering the works of art from Italy through Switzerland and notable art collectors in the United States, Felch quickly and lucidly outlines how the Getty's spending of more than $150 million likely encouraged the unearthing of new objects to be sold to the billionaire institution in Los Angeles. However, the Getty wasn't the only museum to engage in such practices and as Harold Bloom says, put stolen art on public display.  Felch explains what finally prompted Italian authorities to take action against the practice by museums to purchase objects of antiquities without asking questions. Deadline LA (Bloom and Osborn's show) will also broadcast the second part of their interview with Felch next week.

September 23, 2011

Getty to Return More Items to Greece - The Aftermath of "Chasing Aphrodite"

Los Angeles - The Associate Press is reporting today that the J. Paul Getty Museum will return three Greek marbles to Greece. The "5th century B.C. works [are] two pieces of a relief sculpture from a grave marker — a third fragment of which is in a Greek museum — and a slab with an inscription related to a religious festival". It's part of the continued story of Chasing Aphrodite as reported by journalists Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino about the collection of antiquities at the "world's richest museum." The book is not just an indictment against the Getty but also the narrative of the types of pressures involved in the trade of antiquities and the changing perception of what is and isn't acceptable after the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Since writing their book, Felch and Frammolino also continue posting additional stories on their website, Chasing Aphrodite, such as the curator who was under surveillance by the FBI for alleged spying activities. Felch and Frammolino spent more than five years investigating the story then condensed the information in an easy to read and informative volume.

Here's a link to more on the story in The Los Angeles Times.

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.

May 18, 2011

Journalist Jason Felch, co-author of "Chasing Aphrodite", reports for the Los Angeles Times from Sicily about the Unveiling of the Venus of Morgantina at its New Smaller Museum in Sicily ... and information about the Venus Italy Returned to Libya Years Ago

Aphrodite (Venus of Morgantina)/AP
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin,
ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

LA Times reporter Jason Felch, co-author of Chasing Aphrodite, write's in today's newspaper ("Getty officials on hand for Aphrodite statue's unveiling in Sicily") about the opening reception for the 5th century BC Venus from Morgantina to a room with a capacity of 150 people at the Aidone Archaeological Museum in Sicily.

Francesco Rutelli
In addition to two officials from the J. Paul Getty Museum, the ceremony was attended by Francesco Rutelli, Italy's former culture minister and former mayor of Rome (who spoke eloquently at ARCA's art crime conference in 2009); Italy's new culture minister, Giancarlo Galan; and possibly some of the very people who sold some of the various objects that the Getty had to return. Felch writes:
Among the citizens who turned out were several former "clandestini," the Sicilian term for looters, local officials said. For decades, looting has been a source of income for residents in one of the most impoverished corners of Italy's poorest region.
Aphrodite will join a collection of "Morgantina" silver previously returned to the museum.

The Getty Museum has paid more than $18 million for Aphrodite more than 20 years ago and agreed to return the statue in exchange for "long-loans" or Italian objects, Sharon Waxman wrote in her 2008 book, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World.

You may find other examples of objects returned to countries of origin at the UNESCO website ("Recent examples of successful operations of cultural property restitutions in the world"), including the return in 2007 of a Venus statue from Italy to Libya (also see "Italy to Return Ancient Statue to Libya"). Of course this leads to another question about the safety of archaeology in Libya during the civil unrest and subsequent violent conflict but this morning I did not find any status report earlier than March ("Libya's 'extraordinary' archaeology under threat").  For now you may view the website of the National Museum in Tripoli here.

April 1, 2011

Upcoming Book: "Chasing Aphrodite" to be Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 24

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

While covering the Getty's relationship with cultural property this week ("The Getty Bronze" and the Region of Marche"), I appreciated the excellent coverage on the same subject in the Los Angeles Times by Jason Felch who, with another journalist, Ralph Frammolino, is publishing a book next month, Chasing Aphrodite, subtitled "The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum". Attitudes toward the collecting of antiquities have evolved in the past four decades since UNESCO's 1970 Convention which asked that museums and governments stop the purchasing of looted antiquities and ask more about the provenance and context of objects, but controversy has always reigned and The Getty, a resourceful and powerful entity, in addition to being a worldwide leader in conservation, has also a murky history in regards to part of its collection which changed its leadership in the past few years.

The book, the product of five years of investigative reporting, which can be pre-ordered now through here, comes out on May 24 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Felch and Frammolino tells the story of how officials of the J. Paul Getty Museum grappled with the question of acquiring looted Greek and Roman antiquities over 30 years, and the eventual indictment of the Getty's antiquities curator in 2005,' according to the press release. [Marion True, the indicted Getty official, had the charges dropped against her last year in Italy as the court case had dragged on for too long.]

Advance praise of the book includes a comment from Ulrich Boser, author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft, and Jonathan Harr, author of The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece.
"A thrilling, well-researched book that offers readers a glimpse into the back-room dealings of a world-class museum--and the illegal trade of looted antiquities. Chasing Aphrodite should not be missed,” Boser wrote.
“An astonishing and penetrating look into a veiled world where beauty and art are in constant competition with greed and hypocrisy. This engaging book will cast a fresh light on many of those gleaming objects you see in art museums,” Harr wrote.
You may follow the book on Facebook or Twitter.