Book Cover

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

Jason Felch & Ralph Frammolino,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 384 pages
$28.00 

Reviewed by Joel Newman

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J. Paul Getty loved to purchase antiquities, especially if they were cheap. Over the years, he amassed quite a collection.[1] He would pay bargain prices all right,[2]but most of the antiquities were second-rate.[3] Even so, they were crowding him out of his house.[4] He started giving some of them away, but the tax deductions did not seem good enough.[5]

Then, he got a better idea. He put his museum inside his house.[6] Now, he could give his art away and, yet, keep it. But that did not solve the overcrowding problem. Some of his most valuable statuary was being kept outside, exposed to the elements.[7]

He decided to build a separate museum. It was not to be any old museum; it was to be an exact replica of the Villa dei Papiri, a Roman villa that had been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.[8] He planned to house his collection there.[9] Then, he died.[10]

Everyone knew that Getty did not like his family.[11] He did not like the many women in his life either.[12] When they read the will, they found that he had stiffed them all.[13] He had left the bulk of his estate—ultimately a billion dollars in Getty stock—to his museum.[14]

All of a sudden, the Getty Museum was the richest in the world, and it was saddled with a large collection of mostly second-rate stuff.[15] Naturally, it went on a buying spree.[16] There was a little tax fraud, and a lot of trafficking in looted antiquities. Chasing Aphrodite[17] describes what happened next.

First, there was the tax fraud. The Getty’s antiquities curator, Jiri Frel, helped many donors take tax deductions for hugely overvalued contributions. For example, a wealthy radio-station owner, Gordon McClendon, donated more than 120 pieces of carved amber jewelry.[18] The jewelry cost McClendon $20,000, but the Getty valued it at $2.1 million.[19]

The donors did not even have to bother to get their own fake appraisals; the Getty was happy to help. Frel’s secretaries routinely forged the signatures of respectable appraisers on stolen letterheads.[20] Frel described some of these shenanigans to an incredulous art critic for the Los Angeles Times. The critic asked, “Jiri, is this ethical?”[21]

Frel shot back, “I can see you don’t need a tax break.”[22]

Arthur Houghton, the assistant curator, was appalled. He went to his personal lawyer, described what he knew, and obtained an opinion that the museum was participating in criminal tax fraud.[23] Houghton showed the opinion to his superiors.[24] He did not last long at the Getty.

Ultimately, a number of the donors were investigated by the IRS. The Getty burned the stolen letterhead stationery and discontinued the practice of providing fraudulent appraisals.[25] Jiri Frel was forced to leave the Getty, but they paid him for two more years.[26] For its part, the IRS now has a Commissioner’s Art Advisory Panel to ensure that appraisals of donated art come a bit closer to reality.[27]

One might understand how some small, poor museums would be tempted to commit tax fraud to add to their collections. The Getty clearly did not need to do so, but the museum did it anyway, perhaps because the museum thought it could.

Then, there was the trafficking in looted antiquities. Everyone was doing it, but the Getty did it more.[28] Of course, the Getty had to fill up the Getty Villa, and later the Getty Center, with the good stuff, and in a hurry. So much money, so little time. The Aphrodite, which inspired the book’s title, was acquired by the Getty for $18 million (down from the original asking price of $24 million),[29] but was ultimately returned to Italy.[30] The Getty curators simply could not deny that they knew, or should have known, that it had been looted. Ultimately, the museum had to give up artifacts that it had purchased for $40 million and that were worth far more when they were returned.[31]

The debate about the looting of antiquities has gone on forever; Cicero argued against it in 70 B.C.[32] On the one hand, how can a respectable museum act as a fence for stolen property? On the other hand, what sense does it make for priceless works of art to be kept by countries too poor to maintain them properly? Why should these fabulous artifacts be hidden in faraway places, when the rich museums of the world can make them easily accessible to millions?[33]

For millennia, these conflicts were resolved with a wink and a shrug.[34] Pious statements were made, but the looting continued unabated. Finally, in the twentieth century, things changed. The UNESCO Convention on the protection of cultural property was adopted in 1970.[35] The United States enacted implementing legislation in 1983.[36]

The big break, however, came when Swiss police raided a Geneva warehouse. They discovered thousands of photos, depicting all sorts of ancient art, sometimes whole and sometimes neatly sawn into pieces for easy smuggling.[37] The photos were incontrovertible evidence that many of the holdings of the world’s most famous museums had been looted.[38] And no museum had more items in the photos than the Getty.[39]

Surely, the Getty was done in by its own hypocrisy. Consider the Getty’s early policy that it would not purchase looted antiquities, but it would not inquire as to the provenance of what it purchased.[40] At least that policy was not as crass as that of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which would not purchase looted antiquities unless they were too beautiful to pass up.[41]

The Getty, however, was the first museum to embrace the UNESCO Convention seriously. Industry groups decided that they would investigate the provenance of purchased antiquities back only ten years, but the Getty promised to look back to 1970.[42]  The Getty curator of antiquities, Marion True, gave speeches in Italy and America, chastising the museums for their trafficking.[43] She testified in a lawsuit that led to the return of a stolen Byzantine mosaic.[44] Finally, she cooperated with Italian authorities by identifying items in the Swiss photos as belonging to the collections of museums in New York, Boston, Richmond, Toledo, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Sydney, Copenhagen, and, of course, the Getty itself.[45] She did all of this while the Getty itself was engaged in just as much trafficking as anyone else, with Ms. True herself in the thick of it, engaging in undoubted conflicts of interest and compensating herself royally.[46] At the end of the day, Ms. True was indicted in Italy and in Greece.[47] The criminal cases never came to fruition, but she lost her job and her reputation.

Chasing Aphrodite is mostly a story of law—laws ignored, laws finessed, and ultimately, laws triumphant. Necessarily, it is a story about lawyers and legal process. Penny Cobey, the Getty’s acting general counsel, spent two days prepping Marion True for her interview with Italian authorities, only to be blindsided when True disclosed all sorts of things to the Italians that she had neglected to mention the day before.[48] Later, Cobey gave her superiors an honest assessment of the illegality of what they were doing and of the likely legal consequences. Of course, she lost her job.[49]

Chasing Aphrodite is a rollicking good yarn, well told by two Los Angeles Times reporters. There are very few heroes, and many villains. At least, the villains are interesting.


[1].Jason Felch & Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum 21–23 (2011) (discussing the construction of a building to accommodate Mr. Getty’s collection, which had grown by more than 1,000 objects by 1970).

[2]. E.g., id. at 16 (referring to Getty’s purchase of a Rembrandt portrait for $65,000—less than the seller had paid for it a decade earlier).

[3]. Id. at 23.

[4]. Id. at 20.

[5]. Id. at 21.

[6]. Id.

[7]. Id.

[8]. Id. at 22.

[9]. See id. (mentioning Getty’s hope that the new structure would house his entire collection).

[10]. Getty died in July 1976, shortly after revealing his prostate cancer diagnosis. Id. at 24.

[11]. See, e.g.id. at 15 (recounting Getty’s initial refusal to pay ransom to free his grandson, who had been kidnapped by the Calabrian Mafia).

[12]. See id. (referring to the women in Getty’s life as “a rotating harem of young women . . . callously led . . . on with promises that he would ‘take care’ of them in his will”).

[13]. See id. at 24 (describing his bequests to his family and female acquaintances as “insultingly small”).

[14]. See id. at 25, 38 (explaining that Getty left nearly $700 million in stock to the museum and its appreciation to over $1 billion by 1981).

[15]. Id. at 25.

[16]. See, e.g.id. (describing how the museum acquired a bronze statue for $3.95 million shortly after Getty died).

[17]. Jason Felch & Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum (2011).

[18]. Id. at 33.

[19]. Id. at 33–34.

[20]. Id.  at 42–43.

[21]. Id. at 34 (quotation marks omitted).

[22]. Id. (quotation marks omitted).

[23]. Id. at 46–47 (Houghton’s confrontation of Frel), 48–49 (Houghton’s confrontation of the incoming director of the museum).

[24]. Id. at 46–47.

[25]. Id. at 47.

[26]. Id. at 54.

[27]. For the latest Annual Report, see 2010 Art Advisory Panel of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue Ann. Rep., available at http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-utl/annrep2010.pdf.

[28]. Cf. Felch & Frammolino, supra note 1, at 46 (referencing an IRS investigation of museums that allegedly accepted fraudulent appraisals of gemstones).

[29]. Id. at 87, 95.

[30]. Id. at 304, 308.

[31]. Id. at 304.

[32]. Id. at 2 (recounting that Cicero argued to the Roman senate that Gaius Verres, the governor of Sicily, should be tried for theft of artifacts from temples, private homes, and public monuments).

[33]. The Aphrodite itself is a case in point. It has now been returned to a monastery, near Aidone, in Sicily—basically in the middle of nowhere. Jason Felch, She’s No Longer the Getty Goddess, but Statue Is Still a Puzzle, L.A. Times, May 29, 2011, available at http://articles.latimes. com/2011/may/29/entertainment/la-ca-culture-exchange-20110529.

Museums and taxes have always had a close connection. The Tate Modern in London received a wonderful Picasso painting, Weeping Woman, in settlement of a British estate tax bill. Rosemary Clarke, Government Policy and Art Museums in the United Kingdomin The Economics of Art Museums 271, 292 (Martin Feldman ed., 1991). Speaking of Picasso, his heirs were looking at a frightening French tax bill, but they settled by “donating” a substantial collection of his works, thus creating the Picasso Museum in Paris. Picasso Museum, Encyclopædia Brittanica, http://www. britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1382489/Picasso-Museum. All over the world, governments are happy to negotiate tax bills with a view to keeping national treasures in the home country. See, e.g., Erin Thompson, The Relationship Between Tax Deductions and the Market for Unprovenanced Antiquities, 33 Colum. J.L. & Arts 241, 256 (2010) (recounting Greek tax rules that facilitated the return of Mycenaen artifacts in 1993). Further, if there were no tax breaks for charitable contribution of artwork, there probably would not be many museums in the first place.

[33]. See Felch & Frammolino, supra note 1, at 2–4 (characterizing trafficking in looted art as “probably the world’s second-oldest profession,” and recounting the passage of a United Nations treaty to combat trafficking of artifacts).

[35]. Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, Nov. 14, 1970, 823 U.N.T.S. 231.

[36]. Act of Jan. 12, 1983, Pub. L. No. 97-446, 96 Stat. 2329.

[37]. Felch & Frammolino, supra note 1, at 152.

[38]. Id. at 174–75.

[39]. Id. at 176.

[40]. The Getty’s initial policy prohibited the purchase of objects that it suspected were illegally imported, but, in 1987, the museum’s director enacted a policy allowing reliance on sellers’ warranties as to provenance. Id. at 88–91.

[41]. Id. at 181.

[42]. Id. at 299.

[43]. Id. at 156–58, 164.

[44]. Id. at 116–17.

[45]. Id. at 213.

[46]. See id. at 128, 146 (recounting suspect loan payments to True and her urging of a deal on a time frame that would not allow sufficient opportunity for a foreign government to object).

[47]. Anthee Carassava, Charges Dropped Against Ex-Curator in Case of Greek Relic, N.Y. Times, Nov. 27, 2007, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/27/world/europe/27iht-getty.5. 8503650.html (Greek prosecution); Jason Felch & Livia Borghese, Statute of Limitations Ends Trial of Former Getty Curator, L.A. Times, Oct. 13, 2010, available at http://articles.latimes. com/2010/oct/13/entertainment/la-et-getty-trial-20101014 (Italian prosecution).

[48]. Felch & Frammolino, supra note 1,at214.

[49]. Id. at 222–23.