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Book Talk: Shedding light on antiquities' origin

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - One bit of information museums don't often include on placards explaining the origins of ancient artifacts is how they were obtained.
/ Source: Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - One bit of information museums don't often include on placards explaining the origins of ancient artifacts is how they were obtained.

But in a new book, "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum," Los Angeles Times reporters Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino delved into this opaque world.

It is the culmination of a five-year investigation of the J. Paul Getty Museum. For more than 40 years, the Getty chased numerous beautiful, but looted antiquities, ultimately causing an international legal battle with Italy.

Felch spoke with Reuters about the book and a shadowy market in which a highly educated curator could find herself negotiating with obscure criminals in a Swiss bank vault.

Q: How does a reporter get on the stolen antiquities beat?

A: "I started at the Times in 2004, and my first day on the job, the investigative editor said, 'Would you mind helping out with some coverage? The museum director at the Getty Museum has just stepped down and nobody knows why.' That began a year-long investigation into Barry Munitz, the CEO of the Getty, about his misuse of tax-exempt money. Toward the end that reporting, a source said there's a whole other story here that's actually far bigger, that involves our antiquities department."

Q: Some of the most moving scenes are when museum officials are confronted with pictures of their masterpieces soon after being looted from tombs. Why do you think that affected them so much?

A: "It was known in an abstract way that the people who were trafficking in this stuff were shady people. But museums fancy themselves elite institutions that traffic in high ideas, not stolen property. There was never any proof, and the Getty was able to say 'Prove it.'

"When these photos came to light it was devastating. Here were photographs showing some of the Getty's most prized possessions, like this incredible marble sculpture of griffins attacking a fallen doe, thrown in the back of a car, wrapped in newspaper, covered in dirt and in pieces."

Q: Did the looting of the Egyptian Museum during the uprising re-ignite the argument that wealthy countries are better able to host antiquities?

A: "There was a recent talk by Jim Cuno, the director of the Art Institute in Chicago, who is one of the leading voices of this type of argument, and I didn't hear him use the Egypt example. He's used other examples, the best one is the Afghan example where the Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up by the Taliban. In the last few years it's been a harder argument to make because it's become clear that really that's an argument for trafficking in stolen property."

Q: What did you make of curator Marion True, who championed museum reform while still buying looted objects from shady dealers?

A: "In the end I think of her as a person who straddled two generations and was the crucible through which this change occurred. She was a product of a certain generation of museum curator, the gentlemen collectors of old who saw no problem with acquiring looted material.

"She was of a younger generation though, and she saw firsthand when she became curator at the Getty in 1986 how deeply corrupt this market was. The statue of Aphrodite was her prize acquisition. As a result of its illicit origins, we know nothing about it. The only thing we think we know is that it is almost certainly not Aphrodite; it is far more likely to be Demeter or Persephone."

Q: Did the Getty debacle do anything to repair the rift between archaeologists, who typically want to keep artifacts in place to study their context, and curators, who want to present antiquities to the public?

A: "For the first time over the last two years leading museum curators and the archaeological community have been holding meetings discussing these issues. These were unthinkable just a few years ago. That's another sign that we're coming full circle on these issues and there's some kind of meaningful change that's afoot."