The Getty paid $18 million for the Aphrodite statue in 1988, but its questionable origin dogged the museum.

The Getty paid $18 million for the Aphrodite statue in 1988, but its questionable origin dogged the museum. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times / May 22, 2011)

Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 375 pp., $28

What on earth were they thinking? That's the question that comes repeatedly to mind while reading this scathing account of the Getty Museum's ethically dubious activities in the antiquities market over the course of more than a quarter-century. Expanding on their Los Angeles Times series, which made them finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino show Getty staff members time and again engaging in transactions so obviously risky (as well as wrong) that you wonder how they could have imagined they wouldn't get caught.

The answer lies in the context the authors provide about the slow but irreversible shift in attitudes about antiquities collecting that rendered once-acceptable behavior morally indefensible and criminally liable. What makes the story so fascinating is that in the late 1980s and '90s the Getty was seen as a leader in the quest to create a more responsible antiquities acquisition policy. "We as an institution would not want to be buying art against the wishes of the country of origin," declared the museum's antiquities curator, Marion True, in 1989. "We also as a matter of policy contact the countries … and make inquiries if we think that is appropriate."

That caveat about "appropriate," however, left a loophole big enough to drive a truckload of looted art through. True, frequently cited as a model of curatorial ethics, was capable of doublethink on an Orwellian scale. She vocally supported Italy's and Greece's efforts to protect their cultural heritage, on occasion returning questionable objects in the Getty's possession. Yet when offered rare pieces that would enhance the museum's collection, such as an extraordinarily intact statue of a goddess from the greatest period of classic Greek culture, True made only the most pro forma of inquiries. When Italian authorities could not prove that the statue True believed was of Aphrodite had been looted from Sicily, she bought it. She did the same with a solid-gold wreath that Greek officials asserted was likely "the product of illicit excavations," a wreath True had initially turned down because it was "too dangerous."

True was ultimately indicted in Italy and Greece for trafficking in looted antiquities. The Getty announced her "retirement" in 2005, shortly before a Los Angeles Times story revealed that in 1994 she had taken a loan arranged by the partner of an antiquities dealer she did business with and later paid it off with a personal loan from private collector Lawrence Fleischman just days after the Getty accepted the donation of Fleischman's antiquities collection, widely considered to be filled with looted objects.

The loans gave the Getty an excuse to cut True loose, but her acquisitions had been approved by her superiors, and Felch and Frammolino's wide-ranging exposé delineates plenty of other shenanigans at the museum. A tax scam involving phony assessments on donated objects resulted in antiquities curator Jiri Frel's ouster in 1984. In 1997, the Getty trustees made a hefty settlement with a disgruntled drawings curator to prevent him from revealing that the museum's assistant director, Deborah Gribbon, had an affair with a subordinate; the board promoted her to director in 2000 anyway. That was at the prodding of CEO Barry Munitz, who had his own PR problems in 2004-05, when another Times series detailed his misuse of Getty resources.

True's actions, the authors demonstrate, were part of a culture of entitlement at the Getty, a rules-are-for-other-people attitude that made the museum and its antiquities curator the perfect scapegoats when the newly aggressive and professionalized Italian art squad decided that only a criminal prosecution would persuade American museums to mend their ways. Felch and Frammolino make it abundantly clear that plenty of True's peers were engaged in the same wholesale violations of the 1970 UNESCO treaty to protect cultural property.

The Italians' efforts to break up the network of looters and shady dealers that supplied the museums benefited from two sensational breaks so improbable you wouldn't believe them in a novel. The 1994 discovery in middleman Giacomo Medici's warehouse of thousands of photographs, depicting antiquities fresh from the ground and in various stages of restoration, made it possible to positively identify looted objects in museum collections. And in 2001, a raid on antiquities dealer Robert Hecht's Paris apartment turned up a handwritten memoir in which Hecht detailed the organization of regional teams of looters and boasted of outwitting various officials to deliver looted art into the hands of ask-no-questions curators.

The authors lucidly interweave the stories of the art squad's investigations, True's acquisitions, internecine conflict at the Getty and larger developments in the museum world to create a gripping narrative spiked with vivid character sketches. They close with a list of artworks returned to Italy and Greece by museums and antiquities collectors across the United States in the years after True's indictments. Charges against her were eventually dropped in both cases because the statute of limitations had run out, but her career was ruined.

"True, at once the greatest sinner and the greatest champion of reform, has been made to pay for the crimes of all American museums," Felch and Frammolino conclude. That seems an accurate assessment, though it could also be argued that True's breathtaking ability to say one thing while doing another, coupled with the Getty's institutional arrogance, made her a fair target. This chronicle of her painful, protracted fall from grace certainly makes for a riveting cautionary tale.

Smith is a contributing editor for the American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.