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

by Jason Felch, Ralph Frammolino

Two investigative reporters for the Los Angeles Times explore the looted antiquities scandal at the Getty Museum.

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780151015016
  • ISBN-10: 0151015015
  • Pages: 384
  • Publication Date: 05/24/2011
  • Carton Quantity: 12

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About the Book
About the Authors
  • About the Book
    In recent years, several of America’s leading art museums have voluntarily given up their finest pieces of classical art to the governments of Italy and Greece. The monetary value is estimated at over half a billion dollars. Why would they be moved to such unheard-of generosity? 

    The answer lies at the Getty, one of the world’s richest and most troubled museums, and scandalous revelations that it had been buying looted antiquities for decades. Drawing on a trove of confidential museum records and frank interviews, Felch and Frammolino give us a fly-on-the-wall account of the inner workings of a world-class museum and tell the story of the Getty’s dealings in the illegal antiquities trade. The outlandish characters and bad behavior could come straight from the pages of a thriller—the wealthy recluse founder, the cagey Italian art investigator, the playboy curator, the narcissist CEO—but their chilling effects on the rest of the art world have been all too real, as the authors show in novelistic detail. 

    Fast-paced and compelling, Chasing Aphrodite exposes the layer of dirt beneath the polished façade of the museum business.

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    The Lost Bronze

    In the pre-dawn light of a summer morning in 1964, the 60-
    foot fishing trawler Ferrucio Ferri shoved off from the Italian seaport
    of Fano and motored south, making a steady eight knots along
    Italy’s east coast. When the Ferri reached the peninsula of Ancona,
    Romeo Pirani, the boat’s captain, set a course east-southeast, half way
    between the dry scirocco wind that blew up from Africa and the cooler
    levanti that swept across the Adriatic from Yugoslavia.
     The six-man crew dozed. The sea was glassy, but Pirani knew how
    temperamental the Adriatic could be this time of year. Just a few
    weeks earlier, a sudden storm had blown across the sea, sinking three
    boats and killing four fishermen. Weather was not his only worry.
    The Second World War had left its mark on the sea and made his job
    all the more dangerous. Nets hauled up mines and bombs left behind
    decades ago by retreating Nazi forces or their American pursuers.
    The arms of many men in Fano bore scars from the acid that oozed
    out of the rusting ordnance.
     As the sun rose, blinding their eyes, Pirani and his crew sipped
    moretta, a hot mixture of rum, brandy, espresso and anise, topped
    with a lemon rind and lots of sugar. The strong brew gave the men
    not just warmth, but courage. By nightfall, the Ferri had reached its
    destination, a spot in international waters roughly midway between
    Italy and Yugoslavia. The captain knew of a rocky outcropping that
    rose from the seabed where schools of merluza, St. Peter’s Fish and
    octopus gathered for safety in the summer heat. Other boats ventured
    farther east, into the deep waters off the Yugoslav coast, where they
    risked arrest for poaching, But Pirani preferred this hidden shoal.
    While fishing there meant occasionally snagging the nets on sharp
    rocks, the boat often returned to port full.
     The crew cast its nets into the dark waters. They fished all night,
    sleeping in shifts.
     Just after dawn, the nets tugged, catching a snag. Pirani gunned
    the engine and, with a jolt, the nets came free. As some peered over
    the side, the crew hauled in its catch: A barnacle-encrusted object that
    resembled a man.
     “Cest un morto!” cried one of the fishermen. A dead man!
     As the sea gave up its secret, it quickly became apparent that the
    thing was too rigid and heavy to be a man. The crew dragged it to the
    bow of the boat. The life-sized figure weighed about 300 pounds and
    had black holes for eyes and was frozen in a curious pose. Its right
    hand was raised to its head. Given the thickness of its encrustations,
    it looked as if it had been resting on the ocean floor for centuries.
     The men went about the immediate work of mending the torn
    nets. It was only later, when they stopped for a breakfast of roasted
    fish, that one of them grabbed a gaffe and pried off a patch of barnacles.
     He let out a yelp.
     “Cest de oro!” he cried, pointing at the flash of brilliant yellow. It’s
     Pirani pushed through the huddle and looked at the exposed metal.
    Not gold, he declared, bronze. None had ever seen anything like it. It
    might be worth something. The Ferri’s men made a hasty decision.
    Rather than turn it over to local authorities, they would sell the figure
    and divvy the profits.
     As the Ferri motored back to Fano that afternoon, word came over
    the radio that the town was afire with news of the discovery. The
    spark had come earlier, when the Captain had mentioned it while
    chatting ship-to-shore with his wife. Now crowds had gathered in the
    port for the Ferri’s return. Pirani cut the engine and waited until
    nightfall. By the time the Ferri pulled into port, it was nearly 3 a.m.
    and the docks were deserted.
     The crew brought the statue ashore on a handcart, hidden under a
    pile of nets, and took it to the house of Pirani’s cousin, who owned the
    boat. After a few days, the statue began to smell of rotting fish. The
    cousin moved it to a covered garden patio and quietly invited several
    local antique sellers to have a look. They offered up to one million
    lire, but the crew wanted more.
     With the statue’s stench growing stronger by the day, the cousin
    fretted that someone would alert police. He asked a friend with a Fiat
    600 Mutipla to pick up the bronze statue and take it to a farm outside
    town, where they buried it in a cabbage field while they looked for a
    serious buyer.
     A month later, they found Giacomo Barbetti, an antiquarian whose
    wealthy family owned a cement factory in Gubbio, 50 miles inland
    from Fano. Barbetti said he was prepared to pay several million lire
    for the statue but naturally needed to see it first. When the figure
    emerged from the cabbage patch, Barbetti brushed aside the dirt,
    touched its straight nose and surmised it to be the work of Lysippus,
    one of the master sculptors of ancient Greece.
     Lysippos was the personal sculptor of Alexander the Great, and his
    fame as a sculptor spread throughout the ancient world on the heels of
    his patron’s conquests. Lysippos rewrote the canon for Greek sculpture
    with figures that were more slender and symmetrical than those
    of his predecessors Polycleitus and the great Phidias, sculptor of the
    Acropolis friezes. Aside from busts of Alexander, Lysippos was famous
    for depicting athletes, and many of his bronzes lined the pathways
    of Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic games. Lysippos is said to
    have created over 1,500 sculptures in his lifetime, but none was believed
    to have survived antiquity.
     Except, perhaps, this one. The bronze athlete in the cabbage patch
    may well have been one of those lining the pathways to Olympia, only
    to become war booty for Rome, whose glory slowly eclipsed that of
    Athens. As they swept through the Greek mainland and islands,
    Roman soldiers filled thousands of ships with plunder. It was likely in
    one such raid that the bronze athlete was torn from its pedestal some
    300 years after its creation and loaded on to a waiting transport ship
    for Rome. The Adriatic was as fickle then as it is today, whipping up
    deadly storms without warning. Around the time of Christ, the ship
    bearing the bronze athlete apparently sank to the sea floor, where it
    lay for two thousand years.
     As Barbetti touched the foul-smelling figure’s nose he clearly saw
    something he liked. He offered 3.5 million lire — about $4,000,
    enough to buy several houses in Fano at the time. The money was
    split among the crew. Captain Pirani’s share was about $1,600, double
    his monthly wages.
     The bronze, meanwhile, was on the move.

  • Reviews
    "America’s great art museums are the last sacred cows of our culture. It takes a special sort of intrepid investigator backed by a courageous organization to uncover the secrets and lies of these quasi-public institutions and the private agendas of their wealthy and influential patrons. Chasing Aphrodite is the result of one such rare convergence. A scary, true tale of the blinding allure of great art and the power of the wealth that covets it, it is also an inspiring example of the only greater power: the truth."-  Michael Gross, author of Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum

    "A thrilling, well-researched book that offers readers a glimpse into the back-room dealings of a world-class museum--and the illegal trade of looted antiquities. Chasing Aphrodite should not be missed. " –Ulrich Boser, author of THE GARDNER HEIST: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft

    "Chasing Aphrodite is an epic story that, from the first page, grabs you by the lapels and won’t let go. Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino have penetrated the inner sanctum of one of the world’s most powerful museums, exposing how its caretakers – blinded by greed, arrogance  and self-deception – eagerly tapped international networks of criminals in pursuit of the next great masterpiece.  It is a breathtaking tale that I guarantee will keep you reading late into the night. - Kurt Eichenwald, author of CONSPIRACY OF FOOLS: A True Story

    "Chasing Aphrodite is a brilliantly told, richly detailed, and vitally important account of how one of America’s top cultural institutions spent millions buying treasures stolen from ancient graves and then spent millions more trying to deny it. In the hands of Felch and Frammolino, the story gathers a riveting momentum as the Getty moves from one ethical smashup to another. The authors present an astonishing array of evidence, yet they are scrupulously balanced and keenly sensitive to the nuances of the cultural-property debate. Even if you think you know the story of the Getty, read this book. You won’t know whether to laugh or to cry, but you will be enthralled."  --Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World

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