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Chasing Aphrodite: a book review by Susan Nurse

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

Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Flech and Ralph Frammolino

What if you were a museum curator of antiquities and were offered a beautiful object, a sculpture, a drinking cup with wonderful painted figures, a head wreath of wonderful gold leaves and vines. The person offering these items you have done business with before, but he can’t provide you with information about the object further back than 10 years. Your job is to find the very best objects to build a world class collection of ancient artifacts. These objects are museum quality. If you don’t purchase them, someone else will and they will land in another museum or worse a private collection where they will be seen by a few people and will not be available for study. What would you do?

This seems like a simple scenario- don’t buy it! Walk away!

However, in the high stakes of worldwide museums, competing to stay alive by having the best and most important antiquities, ideas get muddy. Thus comes this very readable tale of the J. P. Getty Museum and its’ curator of Antiquities Dr. Marion True. One of America’s newest museums and for a long time its’ richest, the Getty had an identity problem, lots of money but not a lot of objects. Setting up a curatorial department for Antiquities and pushing forward an aggressive budget and acquisition program put pressure on staff even before Marion True became the head of the department.

To be fair, the Getty was not the only museum, either American or European, who fell victim to the large network of robbers, middlemen and dealers who moved art works from Italy and Greece into the hands of collectors and museums. However, it was the sheer numbers of object that became part of the Getty’s collection and the outspokenness of Dr. True against the buying of looted antiquities (latter seen as highly hypocritical) that made the Getty a target for the new nationalistic Italian art squad. In a land where just any spade in the ground might turn up something valuable, and a mentality of mafia support for illegal trade, Italy had not taken a hard line against the middle men and dealers until the 1990s. Even after the 1970 UNESCO convention of protection of cultural property which was signed by many countries (not the Swiss where many of these deals were made) there was no country with the money or inclination to take on the illegal trade in antiquities. Furthermore, European and especially American museums, felt that their mission was to bring the widest variety and objects from all cultures and time periods into a single place where they could be displayed and studied by the highest number of people, as opposed to small museums in the host country were objects night never be fully restored, displayed or studied. Archaeologists were also appalled at the removal of historic objects from their source which meant loosing the cultural history behind them.

A great read that will leave you with as many questions as answers.

Review by
Susan Nurse
Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum
Written by Jason Flech and Ralph Frammolino
ISBN 978-0-15-101501-6
MAG Stack N6555. M4165 2011


Comment from Donna @ HomeBusiness
Time: February 6, 2012, 1:59 pm

I’m not sure if I would be able to simply walk away from that kind of offer. I know that it encourages looters but I don’t there’s any stopping to that.

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