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4.6 out of 5 stars
Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum
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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
For hundreds of years collectors and museums have been buying pieces of ancient art looted from tombs and other archaeological sites in Greece, and Italy. The Getty Museum was no exception. With their almost unlimited acquisitions budget, the curators tried to grab the best pieces that came on the market whether they had provenance or not. Provenance is the chain of ownership that determines whether piece of art is legitimate, or the product of looting and smuggling.

The book was well written, fast paced, and hard to put down. The authors, reporters for the LA Times who led the investigation into the Getty Museum's misdeeds, present an almost incredible picture of greed, egotism and ambition. The Getty was blessed, or cursed, with an enormous amount of money to buy masterpieces. This led the curators into the murky underworld of illegal trade in antiquities. From the book, it's clear that the museum officials knew they were wrong to deal with the criminal underworld, but there was an issue that allowed them to save face. They believed they were saving the art from destruction. Ultimately, all they were doing was increasing the criminal activity of the looters.

I found the book completely fascinating. It gave me a glimpse of the underbelly of the art world I didn't realize existed. I literally couldn't put it down. I highly recommend the book to anyone who loves a good detective story. The authors present a shocking picture of what ambition can do to a supposedly ethical organization. Well worth the read.

I reviewed this book as part of the Amazon Vine Program.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I base my review on the text itself but the Kindle edition is a disgrace.

This was a fascinating look into the issue surrounding the return of looted classical art work purchased by the Getty over the years. It is well written and develops a good chronological timeline as well as insight into the personalities involved that was not readily apparent if you read only the newspaper accounts. I would agree with most of the four- and five-star reviews here on Amazon.

For Kindle customers I have this to add: this digital edition is a disgrace; I have notified Amazon. There are numerous editing errors, none of the photos are included, and there was no indication until I got to the end of the text that there were interesting and informative notes. In the "Notes" section there were two types of indicators for the notes, some linked back to the text and some did not. Some notes were preceded with this symbol "[>]" in front of the note, which links back to the text; others merely had what appears to be a page number in front of the note but the number did not link back to the text nor did the digital edition provide page numbers! Truly a disappointment.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This book examines museum acquisitions, and how ancient artifacts acquire value and are looted and trafficked. As far as the Getty and the Italian prosecutions, much has been written, but this book has a fascinating insight into the corporate board mentality that gives a sense of entitlement to wealthy individuals and institutions. Particularly fascinating were the authors access to inside documents and notes. The reader can have no doubt about the complicit nature of the Getty, and its board members and staff.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I have to say, I absolutely loved this book. What isn't there to like? The rich and the famous's dirty secrets revealed, scandalous sex, endless money, and fabulous art... this book traces the at best questionable and often flat out illegal fashion in which the Getty Museum (and other prominent museums) gathered some of the museum treasures. You'll learn about endless financial scandals and flat out tax fraud, a trail of non stop affairs by the museum executives, the board that ignored the problems, and much more at America's wealthiest museum. And all of this corruption because of, or in spite of, being extremely well endowed.

THe book is very well written, essentially as investigative journalism. It is thoroughly researched, well written, and will plunge you into the lives of the museum workers who were actively performing misdeeds and the detectives (mostly Italian) trying to stop them. It is part mystery, part history, and 100% fun.

If you enjoy museums, or live in LA, or just want a great story, read this book. It is one of my favorite books from this year so far.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Who knew a book about forgery and the Getty Museum could be so fascinating? Having visited the Getty Museum numerous times, I have always been astounded at the treasures that the museum holds. However, as I have gotten older, and have visited great ancient sites, I have also realized that many of the greatest museums have come to acquire some of the greatest works of the ancient world with dubious provenance, if not outright thievery, and as this book explains, that perception is certainly not incorrect.

In this book, the intersection of the two is what is described ably and in a narrative that held my attention throughout the book. The people and insights the authors make made me really analyze just exactly who `owns' the great art we often see in great museums, and that also included modern paintings by famous authors, since many of these works were lifted during World War II and never returned.

This book starts with a fateful fishing trip in the Adriatic Sea, and goes through tax schemes; the endowment of a wealthy man who gave an art museum in death what he never wanted to purchase in life; the downfall of several dishonest people, and a statute that may be a legitimate work of art or a forgery. The book grabbed me from the first chapter and didn't lose my attention for a moment. The many twists and turns are filled with some pretty amazing revelations about the sterilized atmosphere of great museums. It is also a journey through how compromised ethics get people into trouble without realizing that taking short cuts can come back to haunt a person years later.

I truly enjoyed this book, and it is very well-written. It is a certainly fascinating subject, and the journalistic eye brought this story to life with descriptions of many interesting people involved in the intersection described above. A great read.
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23 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Can it be true? Renowned museum curators knowingly purchased looted artifacts for millions of dollars, then covered their tracks by inventing a "past" for the objects, which had been illegally dug up by locals working for pennies while a few low-life dealers raked in the cash? Were rare and valuable antiquities smuggled into the US without paying customs fees? These nefarious activities are the subject of this book, which focuses on the J. Paul Getty museums in California.

The authors take a journalistic approach to the subject, taking us back to J. Paul Getty himself and the billions of dollars he left as a legacy to establish a foundation for the furtherance of the arts and especially the arts of antiquity. We learn that Getty was a bit of a cheapskate, but the people who controlled his money after his death were not, spending lavishly on multi-million dollar purchases of the best of the best. The book takes us through the years of curators Jiri Frel, Douglas Houghton and Marion True.

Frel had no problem buying looted items and making up a past for them. He bought from dealers known to work with looters who made available what their diggers found at sites known to yield ancient objects. These objects could then be smuggled into Switzerland, where the government didn't seem to care, then be moved from there to dealers who made contact with museum curators. Frel also initiated a tax-evading scheme for wealthy patrons who would buy the antiquities and donate them to the Getty, taking a huge (usually with an inflated value) write-off. Frel was finally forced out of his job by Houghton who refused to go along with the scheme.

Houghton did not last long and gave a prophetic warning as he saw his job go to Marion True, who repeatedly spoke out against museums buying unprovenanced items, but did not do as she preached. During her long term as antiquities curator, the museum acquired many fabulous items, including the Aphrodite statue for which the book is named. We follow True's career as she makes friends with Larry and Barbara Fleishman who have a personal collection that is the envy of museums that collect antiquities. We learn of True's cozy relationship with the most notorious of the dealers who work with looted and smuggled items. And we finally learn of actions taken by Italian investigators attempting to reclaim their patrimony. The government wanted museums to give back objects found in Italy but illegally taken out of the country. Many were sold for millions of dollars to museums, especially one very wealthy museum, the Getty.

It turns out that most of the items in the Fleishman collection, which was donated to the Getty upon the death of Larry Fleishman while Barbara Fleishman was made a Board member of the Getty, lacked any credible provenance and had undoubtedly been looted. Italian investigators discovered and ultimately raided a warehouse in Switzerland that yielded up a trove of Polaroid photos of antiquities that had come through that location over many years. These pictures included photos of the Aphrodite in pieces, some with dirt still clinging, which left little doubt that its purported former ownership was fiction. Marion True ended up having to resign her position at the Getty and was indicted on criminal charges in Italy.

The authors tell us that this shabby situation is changing as the world comes to recognize that a country's past history should not be callously treated as a product to be sold to the highest bidder. Looting masks the true history of an object and has always been opposed by archaeologists, but not by art lovers and collectors, who say they appreciate these items for their aesthetic value and should be allowed to own them. Italy has worked out loan programs where museums returning looted items can get loans of objects for temporary display.

My interest in this subject arises partly out of the fact that I have visited both the Getty's original "Roman Villa" museum along the Pacific Highway (this was about 20 years ago) and its new and incredibly fabulous museum on the hill in LA. I was totally impressed by both, but especially the new Getty, which is a building of breathtaking beauty and features gorgeous views of LA. I live in Michigan, so my visits there were vacations. My visit to the new Getty on the hill was a wonderful experience! There was no admission fee and the museum offered every comfort, even free umbrellas in case it rained. I remember the great exhibit of illuminated manuscripts. Every room was full of amazing sights. It is ironic that a museum offering such a fabulous visitor experience had such flawed practices and policies toward acquiring their collection.

But of course the museum was more focused on building its reputation and prestige in the world of museum directors, wealthy collectors and patrons. For that, they needed outstanding, and preferably unique, items of antiquity. California was not where such world-class collections were normally found, but the Getty Board of Directors and the officials they hired set out to change that. It seemed they let this mission get in the ways of ethical considerations.

This book is informative, but the writing is a bit dry, just following the facts without really bringing the scenarios they describe to life. There is no main character, and no conclusion to the saga of Marion True and her legal battles, which apparently continue. The authors feel she took the fall for the whole sordid antiquities business, while others, including the much guiltier Jiri Frel, got away with ignoring international law and the laws of the countries involved, and in the case of Frel, flagrant violation of US tax law.

But out of this mess, perhaps the looting of ancient sites will at least slow, and perhaps the beautiful objects we see and enjoy in museums will have a history, a real and honest history, and will be available for us to see in the US, but remain the property of the country in which they were found.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Admittedly I've never really cared where museums' antiques come from - I just haven't put that much thought into it. The Getty Museum is rare in the fact that it has seemingly unlimited wealth to buy items from, and they've done so over the years. Chasing Aphrodite brings up the shadowy world of looted antiques, forgeries and brings us into the underground of acquiring works over the last 50+ years.

At the center of the book is a 7 foot tall limestone statue of Aphrodite that was purchased for $18 million back in 1988. The Getty was told that it was a family-owned statue for the last 50 years, and after investigation, was led to believe that the statue's backstory was false, but had ties to organized crime. But it's not the only item that's questioned.

The book is well written, albeit a bit dry, but it catches you and brings you into the behind the scenes of what it was like to "save" antiques that were obtained illegally or at the very least, under a cloud of suspicion. It's obvious that the curators of the Getty were getting dirty in order to accumulate antiquities. It certainly makes collecting seem more like The Sopranos instead of the nice and polite world we might anticipate. It will make you question how your local museums acquired their collection.

4.5 stars.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Although I am a North American archaeologist, I can recall the museum communities specious arguments in the 1980s that they were the true conservators of the world's art regardless of the destruction of irreplaceable archaeological sites. The archaeological community was vociferous in opposition. Although many acquisition practices have changed, looting continues to be a major problem in preserving cultural patrimony.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This book was quite well written, and gave me a great deal of background about the process of collecting antiquities - finding and identifying them - and the problems involved. Personalities were interesting, as were the locales. This was one of my first purchases for my kindle, and I found it particularly satisfying to read this way.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This book is well-written and well researched. It also is nuanced in describing the difficulty in establishing provenance, greed, and theft at the art museum level. This book read like a good mystery.
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