In 1964, an Italian fishing trawler pulled from the sea a most unusual catch: a bronze statue.
That’s the starting point for a tale about museums — in particular, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles — and the international antiquities trade told in the new book, Chasing Aphrodite.
It’s an expanded detective story based on a series of reports originally appearing in the Los Angeles Times.
Ralph Frammolino, a longtime reporter for the Times who co-wrote the book with Jason Felch, joined me in our studio for a conversation.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, I said this begins as stories in the Times. What were you trying to do in expanding into a book?
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: The stories in the Times were about the immediate scandal that involved the Getty and other art museums like the Metropolitan Museum in New York. But as we were writing the book, we realized it was a really rich story and back story to the scandal that just came out of nowhere for most people.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about the scandal you are referring to.
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: Well, what happened was, the Getty’s curator was indicted by a Roman Court. And she was indicted as a co-conspirator with middle men in the trade and accused of buying looted objects. Of course the Getty denied it, and we came out with a series of stories that showed that they had known that they were buying looted objects for years. And it kind of took the wind out of a lot of the argument that the museums were making that they had the right to this stuff. And the prospect of having one of the leading curators in America behind bars made the museums basically decide to give back more than a hundred pieces to Italy and Greece, worth a half billion dollars or more.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, partly, as you said, this is about a whole world out there, but partly it is about one particular institution: the Getty.
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: Right, the Getty.
JEFFREY BROWN: What’s important to know about for people who don’t know the Getty?
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: The Getty is a young institution. It was sort of a boutique museum, put in J. Paul Getty’s Villa in near Malibu. And J. Paul Getty at one point was an oilman and he was deemed the richest man in the world. When he died in 1976, instead of giving any money to his family, he gave it to this museum. And over night, the J. Paul Getty Museum was the richest art institution in the world. So they went on a buying spree. They wanted to catch up with the Met, with the British Museum. And one of their collections was antiquities. And they bought the biggest and the best. And within a very short order they were considered a top drawer museum.
JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a lot to this story, a lot of different items involved, but to focus on the one Aphrodite, although it is not clear it is Aphrodite, right? Give us the brief thumbnail of what happened to that particular statue.
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: Well, the Aphrodite was actually introduced to the Getty by a London dealer who brought Marion True to a London warehouse, and in this warehouse stood a 7-and-a-half foot, 1300 pound, limestone and marble statue. And it was breathtaking. This was an acrolith, which means it was made two different materials. And there are very few, intact acroliths in the world. And Marion True was struck by the beauty of this piece, the significance of this piece, but she also knew, and also saw, that it had signs of being looted. So right now, we have, right there, we have a museum that has a dilemma. And we get into this, I think, in a definitive account, that this museum wrestled with this, and decided that they would go ahead and buy things that had all the earmarks of being looted. But they actually used sham policies to make it look like they were actually doing the right thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: She denies doing any of this?
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: She does not say one way or the other about buying looted art. I mean, yes, she denies it, but it is very clear that the things she acquired were looted. And so– and she also, we say in the book, she turned down opportunities — particularly about the Aphrodite — to find out more about its origins. It turns out that that piece was looted.
JEFFREY BROWN: Her case, eventually, with the statute of limitations, went away.
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: Yeah, That’s why I hesitated, because really there is no closure on this issue about whether Marion True was guilty or not. Legally there is no closure. She claims that of course that she is not guilty, and the Italians claim that she is. But there is nothing that’s official about it. And the statute of limitations ran out. And I might say this: that, really after awhile, Marion True’s trial became beside the point. It was beside the point because the Italians made their point, and their point was: American museums, stop buying this stuff, and give back what we have evidence and proof of had been looted. They did that. And so, even the prosecutor said, really, I don’t want to put Marianne in jail. I just– she is collateral damage here, and I just need from her an admission that she did the wrong thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: The culture of collecting — do you think it– Do you see signs that it has changed? The culture at the Getty has changed?
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: Definitely the Getty has changed. It adopted one of the strictest antiquities acquisition policies in the country, saying that it will buy nothing that was– it can’t trace before 1970, which is a key date where UNESCO pulled all the countries together and said let’s try to stop this trade. And it, from all reports, the purchases of antiquities has slowed to a trickle. And Italian officials report that subsequently the looting has abated.
JEFFREY BROWN: And the Aphrodite of the title recently went back to Italy.
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: Yes. Jason and I went back for its official installation, and that was in mid-May, and it was quite well received. I mean it was joyfully received by the people of Aidone where it is. It’s a small town in Sicily. And as I’ve said, it’s kind of a bittersweet ending, because here is a little museum that’s a 17th-century monastery. It’s been converted into a museum that holds maybe 150 people at a time. They get 17,000 people a year there. At the Getty Villa, where the Aphrodite was, they get 425,000 a year. So there will be fewer people to see it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, I mean, this goes back to a larger– we are not going to get into this whole question now — but it does go to a much larger question in the museum and archeological world of the role of the encyclopedic museum, and the care and preservation of these pieces, and the display for many more people than they get if they are at a small museum in Italy.
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: Right, and there is no doubt that museums like Getty, and the Metropolitan, and the British, and the Louvre have done some great things saving these artworks, and we never say anything in the book that that’s a bad thing. But 1970, the rules changed. And what happened was that the Getty and the American museums would ignore the implications of that, and as it turned out, to their peril.
JEFFREY BROWN: You said there is no legal closure here, but what about for you, after years of telling this story?
RALPH FRAMMOLINO: Well, that was the interesting thing of going back and seeing this piece. When I turned the corner and saw her in her new exhibit piece, I’ve got say she did look different. And it’s probably because of the roof is lower and it’s a different color. There is just– I felt something different. I felt like the trouble is over and she was back home. And it was a journalistic closure for me, too. I really wanted to go and see it.