Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

For the moment, however, the most disturbing thing about the Aphrodite was its price tag: $24 million, more than twice the cost of the kouros and far more than had ever been paid for a work of ancient art.

A book related to museums. Book number 5 out of 12 for my book project. Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, is the story of how the J. Paul Getty’s trustees spent decades collecting looted antiquities. They spent millions of dollars on objects that would eventually be returned to their countries of origin. They weren’t the only museums dealing with looted antiquities, but they might be the most infamous. As a result of this scandal, it really changed the way museums handle their collecting, but it was decades in the making.

Their actions amounted to massive betrayal of museums’ public mission. To educate the public and preserve the past, white-gloved curators did business with the most corrupt corners of the art world, cutting deals in Swiss bank vaults and smugglers’ warehouses with the criminal underclass that controlled the market. They bought objects laundered through auction houses and private collections, accepting — and at times inventing — fake ownership histories that covered criminal origins with falsehoods that to this day obscure the historical record.

I’ve always loved museums and I am still obsessed with them today so I knew this was my kind of story. By now you might have realized that I like non-fiction books related to thieving. There is just something fascinating about the lengths someone will go to get what they want. This book is no exception. I devoured it quickly even if at some point I felt it dragging on. Much had to be said though, so it felt right that it was a long book.

The absolute greed you read about is astounding. There is the CEO, who had a one million dollar annual salary and would spend the Getty’s money to buy first class tickets worth $13,000 to fly his wife to Italy in first class “for work.” There is Marion True who was a very willy curator dealing with dubious people. There is also a man who: “falsified museum records and had repeatedly and deliberately violated the Getty’s policy prohibiting the acceptance of donations by dealers.”

Now, in the warehouse of one of the principal middlemen, authorities had stumbled upon an archive filled with that kind of proof. The Polaroids detailed the step-by-step process, from fresh find to clumsy restoration, when the object’s value could be discerned by academics or collectors.

One task remained, Ferri’s team needed to figure out just where the looted artifacts had ended up. Who were the end buyers?

That job required matching pieces from Medici’s photo albums to those in glossy publications of the world’s greatest antiquities collections. But until Swiss officials let Italy have Medici’s Polaroids, it had to be done by memory and notes.

The years of work completed by Ferri, who was the Italian police man that brought these people to justice, is nothing short of staggering. He would not let up until he figured out what the museum employees were doing and how they were doing it, even when he had no resources and people didn’t believe him. He brought to light the rampant corruption in the museum world. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a fun book to read but it is highly entertaining and educational.

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