Lance Charnes's Reviews > Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum

Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch
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it was amazing
bookshelves: nonfiction-crime-espionage, nonfiction-art-culture, reviewed
Recommended for: Fans of true crime, corporate skulduggery, or smart people behaving badly

We think of museums as quiet places run by brainy, arty people in tweed coats or sensible shoes, talking in MFA-speak. We don’t think of them as hotbeds of sex, betrayal, fraud, money-laundering, fencing stolen objects, political turmoil and intrigue. But as Chasing Aphrodite shows, a major American museum could be the setting for a fine soap opera, or Law & Order franchise.

Chasing Aphrodite focuses on Los Angeles’ Getty Museum and Trust, the richest museum in the world, and thirty years of its involvement in heritage artifact trafficking. The child of billionaire skinflint J. Paul Getty (of Getty Oil), the museum started life as a catch basin for Getty’s largely second-rate collection of European art and a nearly first-rate collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. Upon his death, the Getty Trust inherited a huge chunk of money and the means to vault itself into the first tier of world cultural institutions. But where there’s great money, there’s great temptation, and a series of personalities attached to the Museum began scooping up industrial quantities of relics with sketchy (or nonexistent) provenances (collection histories) in defiance of a 1970 UNESCO convention that said “Thou shalt not.” The Getty didn’t stand alone, however; many of its peer museums, auction houses, collectors and dealers were also swimming in the same polluted pool.

Authors Felch and Frammolino are both Los Angeles Times investigative reporters, and their series of articles on this very matter earned them a Pulitzer nomination. This book is an extension and fleshing-out of the subject. Unlike many nonfiction books based on newspaper reporting, Aphrodite reads like a full-fledged true-crime book (which it is) rather than a cut-and-paste job. Their prose is clear and lucid, avoiding the sometimes-impenetrable art-world jargon, and their portrait sketches of the leading characters are clear and sufficient without being overladen with backstory. You don’t have to be a specialist in order to understand – and enjoy – their work.

The story itself is as fascinating as it is juicy, laced as it is with tales of tax fraud, Mafiosi, tomb raiding, smuggling ancient works of art (in purses and carry-ons on pre-9/11 airline flights), backbiting, feuds, and affairs, all involving people who should have known better. It even stars a dogged Italian prosecutor, a doomed, flawed semi-heroine, and a wastrel CEO. It wouldn’t take much to turn this into a novel.

A couple minor cavils. As mentioned, the narrative covers over thirty years and a huge, multinational cast of characters; a timeline and a list of cast members wouldn’t be amiss, and the text could use a few more mentions of dates (or at least years) so the reader can keep track of how much time is passing. Also, this story cries out for pictures of not only the cast, but of the featured art; the Aphrodite of Morgantina, the star artifact, gets one small, fuzzy black-and-white photo.

If Museum of the Missing is your gateway drug into the subject of art crime, Chasing Aphrodite is the next step up the addiction ladder – a compelling armchair read that shows you how this world works without leaving you feeling like you’ve been dragged through a pre-law program. If your appetite for antiquities looting is stimulated by this book, the authors maintain a website and blog that continues and deepens the story to include the misdeeds of other museums and auction houses. If you’re a true-crime fan tiring of bizarre serial killers, take a stroll with some forgers, smugglers and thieves. Or if you just like to read about pride going before the fall, this is the Fine Arts edition of that age-old story. You’ll never look at a vase in a vitrine the same way again.
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Reading Progress

May 27, 2013 – Shelved
June 4, 2013 – Started Reading
July 9, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Seeley (new)

Seeley James I was just there a few months ago and wondered about that. For a relatively new museum it had an amazing collection... too amazing. (Beautiful place to visit: views, architecture, collection!) I'm going to read this based on your review.

message 2: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather Wonderful review, Lance! I am definitely going to put that on my TBR shelf and hopefully get to asap.

I have been to the Getty Museum twice and absolutely loved it! But I didn't know any history behind it or any of the above mentioned facts regarding some of it's pieces.

Thank you!

message 3: by Lance (last edited Aug 19, 2017 08:41AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lance Charnes Thanks -- it's well worth a read, especially with your interest in art and antiquities.

I don't know which part of the Getty you went to. The Brentwood part (up on the hill) has the view and the European galleries; the Malibu part (the original) is a reproduction of a Roman villa and has all the ancient artworks. If you've only been to Brentwood, make a point to go to the Malibu campus next time you're in the area and you'll get to see many of the stars of this book.

message 4: by Jennifer (new) - added it

Jennifer S. Alderson I love Museum of the Missing, I'll have to read this as well. Great review!

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