The Getty Museum and its antiquities: Collateral damage
Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum. By Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 384 pages; $28 and £16.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
THE admirable display of Greek and Roman antiquities at the Getty Villa in Malibu was a hit when the museum reopened in 2006 after a $275m refurbishment. The curator of the show, Marion True, was not present, however, having been forcibly retired by the Getty trustees. Ms True was facing trial in Rome on charges of acquiring for the Getty classical items illegally looted from Italian graves. She is both the villain and the victim in this slickly written and well researched detective story by two journalists associated with the Los Angeles Times.
When Ms True began working at the Getty in the mid-1980s demand for classical antiquities greatly exceeded supply. It was being met principally by a few piratical European dealers running a supply chain that started in archaeological sites in Italy and Greece, where looting was endemic, and ended in the great American museums. Ms True’s finest moment was the purchase, for $18m, of a huge limestone and marble statue of Aphrodite dating from the fifth century BC. The purchase went ahead from a London dealer named Robin Symes, even though the provenance was laughable. Gossip in the trade suggested that Aphrodite had in fact been found not long before in Sicily. It seemed that Ms True had succumbed to curatorial avarice.
By coincidence, the purchase was completed on the same day that Italian bureaucrats decided it was time to stop the exodus and initiated an international investigation into the illegal traffic, to be conducted by an unforgiving prosecutor named Paolo Ferri. Mr Ferri saw a photograph of Aphrodite, and decided that it belonged back in Italy. He targeted Ms True.
She was an unlikely villain, since she was at the time making a stir in American museum circles by demanding a significant change to acquisition policies. It should be illegal, she declared, for museums to purchase classical statuary whose provenance was unclear. Furthermore, if looted work was identified in American museums it should be returned. She returned to Italy four significant pieces bought by the Getty. Senior policemen and bureaucrats in Rome were impressed, but not Mr Ferri. He decided that Ms True had a double nature—“not Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but very similar”. He put her on trial.
Ms True pleaded not guilty, but her case suffered badly from self-inflicted wounds. She coveted a house in Greece and borrowed money to buy it from an important New York collector, who had just given and sold much of his collection to the Getty. Moreover, that collection contained a number of pieces that circumstantial evidence identified as suspect. The Getty’s trustees decided the house loan was a conflict of interest and forced out Ms True while she was on trial for transactions they had known about and approved. Her former colleagues at the Getty have nothing to learn from Pontius Pilate when it comes to washing their hands.
Ms True battled on in Rome, refusing to admit any guilt. Her case was finally dropped last November, after this book was completed. The authors, if not the court, clearly consider Ms True guilty as charged. But by then Mr Ferri’s investigation had achieved its aim: Aphrodite was back in Italy, along with dozens of other looted antiquities from American museums. Mr Ferri finally confessed that Ms True had been only a means to an end. Ms True, jobless, with her reputation destroyed, now cultivates her Greek garden. She was, Mr Ferri says, “collateral damage”. The story is well told, though perhaps sadder than the authors intended.