“Chasing Aphrodite” explores the controversy behind how the J. Paul Getty Museum became the world’s richest and most influential museum. An avid art collector of Greek and Roman antiquities, Getty initially opened the Getty Villa to the public for only four hours a week so that he could call his Roman Villa a museum and reap a tax break. The Getty Museum as we know it really took off once Getty virtually shut his family out of his will and left more than $700 million dollars to a trust to preserve the museum and encourage the arts. Felch’s examination of the interworkings of the Getty staff reveal that many of the pieces were obtained through questionable and often illegal practices. The resulting story is absolutely fascinating, and made me want to return to the Getty to see the stolen pieces for myself!
Getty’s will required that a board of trustees run the museum and approve the acquisitions. Unfortunately, due to the board’s collective inexperience regarding art, they lacked the vision to know what pieces the Getty should obtain. To remedy the chokehold the board had on the museum, Frel put together a completely brilliant scheme to enrich patrons, defraud the government, and benefit the Getty. Frel would find a piece of art worth $70,000, but when one of his wealthy clients purchased the piece, he would have it appraised at a price at least double what it was worth. Then the client would donate the item to the Getty, while receiving a sizeable tax deduction based on the false and inflated price. Soon, the Getty was completely full of art, and it hadn’t spent a penny to acquire any of it! Frel was so focused in his pursuit that he didn’t bother to check whether the work was real, or was being sold legally. Frankly, he didn’t care.
When many of the pieces ended up being fake, Frel left the Getty, and the Getty board changed it policies to ensure that all future pieces were real. However, when Marion True became responsible for all acquisitions at the Getty, she did more damage than even Frel. The Getty had a policy that when a work was being acquired, the Getty would notify the government where the work originated that they intended to purchase the piece. The purpose of this policy was to curtail looting. By notifying the country of origin of any art leaving its boarders, museums were ensuring that no looted art would be sold internationally.
Marion True didn’t seem to care whether the pieces bought or given to the Getty were looted. When True was presented with the opportunity to purchase the Aphrodite statue, she jumped at the chance even though the facts strongly suggested the piece was looted. First, the owner of the Aphrodite could not provide the history of the statue, True’s first clue that the statue had an illegitimate beginning. Next, the statue was cut perfectly in three segments, an indication that the statue was deliberately cut by looters so that it could be secretly, and easily transported out of the country. Italians instigated an investigation into the Aphrodite, but since no one associated with the statue’s purchase would say anything against anyone else, the investigation died.
Italian officials and international art groups were calling for reform from the large museums to stop purchasing looted art. But museums around the world were fearful of adopting such policies since it would limit the art it could obtain. In several cases that were presented to the federal courts through the 1990’s, the courts consistently held that a museum could not intentionally remain ignorant of facts that would inform them that the piece was looted. The new stance on international looting, additional information about the Aphrodite, and a new Italian investigator culminate in a new investigation into the Getty’s acquisition of the Aphrodite. In the end, the Aphrodite would be returned to Italy only days before this book was published!
The book provides an excellent view into the international world of art. Anyone who is even slightly interested in art, acquisitions, or international law would find this book interesting. I would recommend it.