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What Went Wrong at the Getty

1.

On August 5, 70 BC, at 1:30 in the afternoon, a remarkable criminal trial began in Rome. A young prosecutor named Marcus Tullius Cicero was accusing a senior Roman political official, Gaius Verres, of extortion and misrule during Verres’s tenure as governor of Sicily. “For three long years he so thoroughly despoiled and pillaged the province that its restoration to its previous state is out of the question,” Cicero proclaimed in his bold opening statement.

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Italian Culture Ministry/AP Images
This late-fifth-century statue, thought by some to depict the Greek goddess Aphrodite, was purchased by the Getty Museum in 1988 from a London dealer for $18 million with no information about its origins. It was relinquished this year to a museum in Aidone, Sicily; Italian authorities believe it was looted from the nearby archaeological site of Morgantina.

Verres was well connected, and the case seemed to have long odds. Undeterred, Cicero suggested that his crimes were so numerous that it was hard to keep track of them: he sacked the treasury, manipulated the courts, stole grain from farmers, and connived with pirates; he locked up anyone he didn’t like (or the husbands of women he coveted) in the latomie, the fearsome subterranean rock prison near Syracuse, or simply crucified them.

Above all was Verres’s voracious appetite for art. “Ancient monuments given by wealthy monarchs to adorn the cities of Sicily…were ravaged and stripped bare, one and all, by this same governor,” Cicero continued.

Nor was it only statues and public monuments that he treated in this manner. Among the most sacred and revered Sicilian sanctuaries, there was not a single one which he failed to plunder; not one single god, if only Verres detected a good work of art or a valuable antique, did he leave in the possession of the Sicilians.

So overpowering was this opening statement, and the evidence used to support it, that Verres fled into exile and the trial was never completed. But that didn’t matter much to Cicero, who published the full legal arguments he had prepared anyway and was elected praetor two years later. “He never did anything on the same scale again,” Elizabeth Rawson writes in her classic biography of the orator. “Rome must have been dazzled.”

Ever since the Verrine Orations, the subject of plundered art has retained a special hold on the popular imagination, from Byron, who railed against Lord Elgin’s exploits in Athens (“Thy mouldering shrines removed/By British hands…”) down to Thomas Hoving, who engaged in some Elgin-like behavior before becoming a zealot of the anti-collecting cause.1 Beginning in the early twentieth century, if not earlier, it has also increasingly been a matter of law. Many countries have declared state ownership of artifacts found in (and on) their soil; more recently, some, including Italy and Greece, have shown a readiness to prosecute those who trade in them. Indeed, over the last few decades, the market for ancient art seems to have become ever more murky with the kind of dark dealings that Cicero, at his most prosecutorial, would have delighted in. Rarely, though, has the long shadow of the Verrines—the plunder and the rhetoric—been more present than in the unprecedented trial, also in Rome, of Marion True, former antiquities curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which ended last year.

Along with two dealers, Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici, True was charged with taking part in a decades-long pactum sceleris—a criminal conspiracy—to traffic in looted Greek and Roman art. As in the prosecution of Verres, the charges could draw on a huge body of evidence—in this instance, thousands of lurid Polaroid photo- graphs belonging to Medici, a Geneva- based Italian dealer, that showed freshly looted classical artworks subsequently bought by the Getty and other important museums. Again, with huge publicity, the case alleged that a statue of a Greek goddess had been brutally removed from its Sicilian sanctuary.

Unlike Cicero, Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the small, intense Roman prosecutor in the True case, is no great orator. Moreover, many of the objects he cited in the case had been acquired by the Getty and other museums twenty or even thirty years earlier—well beyond the statute of limitations for ordinary stolen art claims—and his theory of conspiracy raised numerous questions. Yet even without a verdict, the tenacious prosecutor managed to shock, cajole, and embarrass five of America’s leading museums into handing over more than one hundred works of art to the Italian government. Some of the museums have all but given up collecting antiquities; one, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, agreed to have Italy review—and in effect have veto power over—any such acquisition it makes.

In achieving these improbable results, Ferri was assisted by Italy’s crack team of stolen-art cops, the Carabinieri TPC, or Cultural Heritage Protection Police, whose forensic diligence led to the discovery of the photographic archive of stolen works in a warehouse in Geneva’s Free Port; and by a group of officials in the Italian culture ministry who saw an opening to go after big US museums and ran with it. Critical, though, was the interest of American journalists. During the trial, Italian officials would leak information to journalists they liked, and made no bones about the extent to which they were waging their battle through the press. In 2006, Maurizio Fiorilli, an Italian lawyer who was closely involved in the prosecution, put it this way: “We have a newspaper in every [American] town where there is a big museum.”

But even taking this into account, the investigation of the Getty Museum by its hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, stood out. Not only did the paper, in article upon article, put across the prosecution’s case against Marion True with particular force. It also brought out an extraordinary cache of evidence all its own, in the form of privileged legal files leaked from the office of the Getty’s in-house counsel. In early September 2005, for example, the newspaper disclosed that, in early 2001, a lawyer had advised Getty Trust President Barry Munitz not to share with Italian authorities True’s correspondence with the suspected dealers because the letters, which refer to museum purchases and potential acquisitions, were “troublesome.” This suggested to Ferri that, as he later told me in Rome, the Getty had “committed a disloyalty” by withholding material information about its antiquities acquisitions. As if that weren’t enough, a separate Los Angeles Times investigation was meanwhile exposing profligate personal use of Getty money by Munitz, revelations that ultimately led to his resignation.

Now, the dogged reporters who obtained the Getty files, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, have published Chasing Aphrodite, an exhaustive account of their investigation. It is an important book, though not, perhaps, in the way they intend.

2.

A cynical portrait of the Getty Museum and its former curator, Chasing Aphrodite sets out to debunk the notion that art museums might have some legitimate reason for collecting art from the ancient past. “Museums have fueled the destruction of far more knowledge than they have preserved,” the authors state flatly in their prologue, a point they support with neither evidence nor argument. They then introduce their main theme:

Over four decades, the Getty chased many illicit masterpieces…. One of those acquisitions—the museum’s iconic seven-and-a-half-foot statue of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love—would become a totem for the beguiling beauty of ancient art.
The goddess held an allure so strong that a museum risked everything to own her; a nation rose up to demand her return; archaeologists, private investigators, and journalists scoured the globe for her origins; and a curator ruined herself trying to keep her.

With this Hollywood-trailer plotline, Felch and Frammolino aim to wrestle the vast body of internal memoranda, legal briefs, and museum correspondence that occupy the greater part of their nearly four-hundred-page book into a familiar story about money, art, and power. Although it was not originally part of the conspiracy investigation, the so-called Aphrodite, a high-classical Greek sculpture, became a sticking point in the Italian case. Acquired in 1988 for $18 million from the London dealer Robin Symes, the limestone-and-marble acrolith (literally, “having stone extremities”) had surfaced on the market with no information about where it had been found. Despite rumors about an illicit Sicilian provenance, four leading scholars attested to its signal importance and True promoted its acquisition.

During the trial, investigators hired by the Getty turned up photographs in the possession of the Swiss former policeman who prosecutors said had sold the statue to Symes, showing that it had been looted in recent decades and broken into pieces for transport. It was handed over to a small Sicilian museum in early 2011. Thus, in the authors’ account, “curatorial avarice” and the lure of a “voluptuous” fifth-century-BC deity turn Marion True, the curator of the “world’s richest museum,” into the “greatest sinner” in a field that was already rife with illicit activity and corruption.

Their approach has considerable expository appeal. It helps give thematic focus to an almost overwhelmingly detailed account of the Getty bureaucracy and allows readers to infer skullduggery in routine museum dealings—all of them somehow related to the goal of collecting looted antiquities. And with the Italian legal case against True, the authors also have a central character around whom to frame their story, a “heroine in a Greek tragedy.”

Felch and Frammolino scour True’s background and career for clues about what they suggest was a gradual descent into criminality. For example, though they seem not to have spoken with her (she declined to be interviewed for their book), they find much significance in the high tone of her voice, which could be a “sign of insincerity.” A series of part-time jobs she took in commercial art galleries while a doctoral student at Harvard meant that she was “struggling professionally.” And the failure of her first marriage—several years before she arrived at the Getty—is attributed to “her growing taste for extravagance.”

In her years as curator, they chart the “change in her personality” into “an imposing, matronly woman” who “cut people off with a hot glare or piercing remark and banished anyone who was judged guilty of disloyalty.” Meanwhile, she increasingly “exhibited the sense of entitlement that seemed to infect many at the Getty.” Above all there was the “small villa”—a house worth $400,000—she bought on the island of Pāros with money borrowed “from people who had sold tens of millions of dollars’ worth of a ntiquities to the Getty on her recommendation”—a conflict of interest that led to her dismissal from the museum in September 2005, just as her trial in Italy was about to start.2

Yet the particulars of Marion True’s downfall (and the Euripidean analogy) are not, at this point, particularly new; nor is the ambivalent outcome of her trial very helpful to the broad conclusions that the authors want to draw. Indeed, the trial’s denouement—it ended in October 2010, because the statute of limitations on the charges against her had expired—is relegated to just two sentences in the book’s epilogue, with the authors noting in passing that it leaves “unresolved the question of her guilt or innocence.” Also obscured are the outcomes of two further cases against True in Athens, both of which had been fueled by the Italian indictment, and which similarly ended with the court dropping all charges. (The authors mention only one of these cases, calling it an “uneventful conclusion.”)

  1. 1

    For the influence of the Verrines on modern thought about the ownership of art, see Margaret M. Miles, Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate About Cultural Property (Cambridge University Press, 2008). 

  2. 2

    Felch and Frammolino’s account of Marion True’s vacation house in Paros is puzzling. Citing a nephew of the late Christo Michaelides—the partner of London dealer Robin Symes, who frequently sold works to the Getty—they repeatedly assert as fact that True originally bought the $400,000 house with a “loan from Christo Michaelides.” They then write that True repaid this loan with a second loan from the collectors Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman, adding, “Many years later, it was unclear whether she actually made those [loan] payments. The Getty’s lawyers could find no proof that she had.”

    This story is inaccurate. As they elsewhere acknowledge, the first loan was a four-year loan from Dimitrios Peppas, a Greek lawyer who arranged financing for shipping companies and who was recommended to True by Michaelides. The authors provide no documentary or other corroborating evidence that Peppas’s money came from Michaelides, which True has categorically denied, nor do they make clear that the story of the loan from Michaelides—or from Symes, according to the original rumor—surfaced after Michaelides’ death, at a time when his nephew was pursuing a legal fight against Symes over the Michaelides estate. Unless there is concrete evidence to the contrary, it seems unlikely that Michaelides—who the authors suggest was a personal friend of True’s—would have charged her the steep rate of 18 percent interest carried by the Peppas loan (a figure that the authors fail to mention).

    Regarding the Fleischman loan—a thirty-year loan that in December 1998 was set at the prevailing interest rate of 8.25 percent—in February 2006, True’s lawyer sent a statement to Luis Li, a lawyer hired by the Getty to work on the antiquities case, affirming that True’s Bank of America accounts had been reviewed for the preceding seven years and that “the records show that…from January 1999 through January 2006 loan payments exceeded $162,000.00 and were generally consistent with the payment schedule in the loan documentation.”

    Taking a loan from collectors who had sold works to the Getty was a serious lapse of judgment on True’s part, but the facts of the house financing do not bear out the authors’ claims. 

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