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

Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum
By Los Angeles Times reporters
Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino.


For the Armenian community this book is most timely in light of the fact that the Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Western United States has filed a lawsuit against the Getty Museum to retrieve 8 pages of illustrations that were torn out of the Zeyt’un Gospels and later purchased by the Getty Museum.

The authors tell the story of how one of America’s wealthiest and most powerful museums, the Getty Museum of Los Angeles, has been embroiled in controversy over its practice of dealing with looted antiquities. The disappointing reality is that the Getty and its curator, Marion True, who has had criminal charges brought against her in Italy and Greece, have done nothing more than what many other leading museums in the United States have been doing for years.

However by virtue of their wealth and power the museums have hidden their conduct from public scrutiny. Nearly all of the major museums in the U.S. have dealt with looters and crooks to obtain black-market artwork, taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance toward questions of both ethics and legalities. Indeed, as this book documents, Getty officials actively avoided knowledge of the origins of certain artwork, often turning down opportunities to learn more about their history and origin.

Chasing Aphrodite traces how the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles built its impressive collection of classic artifacts along with its impressive reputation, only to see it crack in the wake of accusations of participating in an antiquities black market.

The authors clearly state in the preface that their intent was to show that museums’ laudable goal of preserving and protecting antiquities was undermined by their decades-long reliance on an illicit trade that destroys our knowledge of the ancient world.
Soil found in the folds of the statue of Aphrodite sat in vials unexamined for 19 years, despite the initial pleas of the head of the Getty conservation institute. Marion True turned down an opportunity to view photos of the statue before its restoration, despite the possibility that they might clarify the goddess’ true identity. The Getty even refused to obtain missing fragments from the statue from the man they publicly claimed was its original owner. How to explain this bizarre aversion to the truth at an organization whose mission is the “diffusion of knowledge”? The Getty was so intent on keeping this illicit beauty in Malibu that it was willing, time and again, to sacrifice the truth about her origins. Only after the Getty agreed to return the statue to Sicily, where it now resides, did it invite scholars to begin the arduous process of reconstructing that lost history. As if to underscore the museum’s history of obfuscations, many experts now believe the goddess represents Demeter or Persephone, not Aphrodite.

Instances of bribery, forgery, tax fraud, smuggling and general dishonesty are documented in the book at the Getty, and shown to be routine throughout the museum world. In truth, the authors’ research and documentation leaves very little for readers to infer.

Getty’s antiquities curator Marion True approved the acquisition of the Aphrodite on the very day True and other museum officials learned of an international investigation into its origins. Why did True continue to pursue the acquisition of a golden funerary wreath just weeks after concluding it was “too dangerous”? And how could True profess ignorance about the illicit antiquities trade to Italian authorities after concluding as early as 1987 that “the majority of antiquities on the market were likely to have been removed from their countries of origin illegally.”

Felch and Frammolino write that “Low-down thugs rub elbows with terrifyingly erudite curators and ridiculously wealthy collectors, all of them almost helplessly attracted to a handful of the most beautiful objects in the world”. Museum staffs with more PhDs per capita than you’ll find at MIT create “spiteful environment[s]” in which a sense of entitlement runs wild and trips to Paris on the Concorde are viewed as a basic right. And then there are the earnest investigators – Italian, in this case – driven by a deep-seated conviction that what’s theirs is theirs and that when it comes to the finest of antiquities “such loveliness belongs at home.”

Time and again, Felch and Frammolino return to the Aphrodite statue, using her journey to follow the trail of black and grey market dealers and the surprisingly high propensity for some museum officials to forge documents of origin and even personally smuggle artifacts into the United States.

Inevitably though, the Getty and other museums had to change their policies. As an Italian archaeological director writes to True, “Do you have any idea how many archaeological sites have been plundered so that a single object can reach the market? How much scientific evidence we have lost? How many other objects have been destroyed? Acquiring from the market is a crime against science and against the cultural and historic patrimony of another country.”

In 1994 the Getty Museum purchased from the Atamian family of Watertown, Massachusetts  8 pages that were torn out from the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Zeyt’un Gospels during the Armenian Genocide in 1915. The illustrations by T’oros Roslin which date back to 1256 are also known as the Canon Tables.

The Zeyt’un Gospels, made in the scriptorium at Hromklay for Catholikos Constantine I in 1256, are the earliest signed work of T’oros Roslin, the most accomplished illuminator and scribe in Armenia in the 1200s. In the early part of 1920, the eight (8) illustrations containing the Canon Tables were ripped out as a group from the rest of the manuscript. The rest of the Bible which was given to the Armenian Patriarch of Aleppo, eventually made its way to Istanbul and the Patriarch of Istanbul gifted it to the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia, where it has been kept since 1948.

The pages were removed from the Gospel in the city of Marash by Melkon Atamian, the father of Nazaret Atamian, as reported in an article by Dr. Haroutiun Der Ghazarian published on August 3, 1967 in the Armenian language daily Haratch of Paris.  Those pages were the ones eventually acquired by the Getty Museum, while the rest of the manuscript is in a public collection in Armenia.

We can only speculate as to the moral emptiness that must have existed in that individual at the moment that he made the choice to irreparably tear out those pages from the over 700 year-old manuscript.

The desecration of the Zeyt’un Gospels is another aspect of the final step in the perpetuation of the Genocide of the Armenian people. These religious and national antiquities belong to the Armenian people and must be returned to its rightful owner — the Armenian Church.

The Getty Museum defends its acquisition by arguing that articles about the Canon Tables were published extensively from 1994 on and nobody questioned the legal title so therefore their sale was legal. This rationale has often been used when museums justify shady acquisitions. The artwork is hidden in a private collection for a few years, then is loaned to a famous institution where it gets published thereby establishing provenance. This veneer is a looted antiquities laundering system utilized by many museums throughout the world. The Getty Museum had a duty to investigate how the Atamian family came into possession of the Canon Tables to assure itself and the public that the party selling the antiquity had legal title to the items sold. Clearly the Getty had access to experts who could have verified that the illustrations were removed from the original collection and thus confirm that they had been stolen.

The Armenian people have been one the world’s most victimized.   Along with looted antiquities, the Armenian nation has over 4,000 churches that have been destroyed or left in ruins by the Turkish government in historical Armenia. Years ago there was a great outcry as we watched news reports of images of the Taliban destroying Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan, the remaining traces of that earlier society.  As we were watching the news coverage of this most recent senseless act, I couldn’t help thinking that similarly thousands of churches in historical Armenia have been destroyed and and continued to be desecrated and yet no outcry was heard from this predominantly Christian country. The Armenian people have finally realized that only they can initiate action to stop the final destruction of the remnants of the Armenian culture in historical Western Armenia (modern day Turkey). As in the lawsuit against the Getty our voice should be loud and clear, “Don’t do this anymore – or we’ll see you in court.”

The illicit conduct of the Getty Museum may fall within the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property or it may be old enough to not apply.  Regardless of that technicality the lawsuit will soon determine if Getty will stand to answer for its dishonesty in the court of public opinion or a court of law. We’ll see what the courts say.


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