The Road From Cicero to Marion True: What "Chasing Aphrodite" Reveals About the Getty's Notorious Antiquities Trafficking Controversy

The Road From Cicero to Marion True: What "Chasing Aphrodite" Reveals About the Getty's Notorious Antiquities Trafficking Controversy

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin reviews the recently-published "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities of the World's Richest Museums" by James Felch and Ralph Frammolino. The Review is the kind of publication where its reviews are as much Op-Ed pieces as critical commentaries, and to a great extent they summarize the key points of the books they cover. That is the case with this review as well. But this review is of particular interest to me, as is the book in question, because it features a number of individuals who have collaborated with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), the nonprofit research group on art crime and cultural heritage protection of which I am the founder.

The review begins with a mention of the Verrine Orations, a famous trial begun August 5, 70 BC, in Rome (at 1:30 p.m. in the afternoon, if you're keeping score) in which the young Cicero lead the prosecution against a corrupt former governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, who was charged with extortion and misrule. Since 212 BC Rome had been fascinated with Hellenistic art, thanks to their introduction to it after the sack of Syracuse — then a Greek colony — in Sicily. Cicero himself was a voracious collector of Hellenistic art. In addition to laying out various charges of general corruption, wrongful imprisonment and execution, embezzlement, and general nastiness, Cicero focused his accusations on Verres's looting of Sicily's art and monuments. As Eakin quotes:

"Ancient monuments given by wealthy monarchs to adorn the cities of Sicily… were ravaged and stripped bare, one and all, by this same governor [Verres]. 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."

Verres didn't stick around for the trial — he fled and never returned to Rome. Cicero published his trial notes, and became praetor two years after.  

This is probably the first legal case wherein the right of a people or nation to retain their own cultural property was asserted in a court of law. According to Cicero, Verres should have left these valuables in "the possession of the Sicilians." At the time, Sicily was a Roman colony, with its cities primarily of Greek origin, with a smattering of other ancient peoples, like the Phoenicians, in the mix. It was certainly a multi-ethnic hub. So whose cultural heritage was Cicero referring to? He was associating cultural objects with a geographic location. The possessions belonged to whoever was living there. And there they should remain, he implied. (For more on the subject of looting art in the ancient world, I recommend Margaret M. Miles's "Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate about Cultural Property Cambridge."

Eakin's review, and the book in question, relate the story of the Italian trial against Marion True, the Getty curator who was charged with taking part in a criminal conspiracy (pactum sceleris) to traffic in looted Greek and Roman art. Most Italians related to the case are open about saying that True was being made an example of — she was only the most prominent of many curators and dealers suspected of, or proven as, having been involved in the traffic of illicit antiquities. Much of "Chasing Aphrodite" focuses on True as the evil protagonist, one whom the Getty threw under the bus in their own dealings with Italian prosecutors. Many of the figures mentioned in the book, including Italian lawyers Maurizio Fiorilli and Paolo Ferri, have collaborated with ARCA (Fiorilli spoke at the ARCA Conference in the Study of Art Crime in 2010 and Ferri is speaking at our conference this year, this Saturday the 9th in fact, where he is receiving an award from ARCA). 

Other books have focused on the criminal side of this case, and the phenomenon in general. Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini's "The Medici Conspiracy" is probably the best known and it tells the story of the ringleader to whom multiple gangs of tomb raiders sold their choicest finds, Giacomo Medici, who then sold them to world museums. Vernon Silver's "The Lost Chalice" tells the story of one object in particular handled by Medici and the Getty, the Euphronios kalyx. In Italian, Fabio Isman's "I Predatori di Arte Perduta" tells the perspective from Italy's standpoint. Watson, Silver, and Isman are all speaking this weekend at the ARCA conference.

In fact, Marion True is more scapegoat than supervillain, the one who got caught with her hand in the cookie jar and was made an example of to deter the world's museums, and to show that the source countries like Italy, and later Greece, mean business when they seek not only to curb the flow of illicit antiquities leaving their shores, but also to bring cases for the repatriation of looted antiquities already on display in world museums. The focal point of "Chasing Aphrodite" in terms of an object is the Morgantina Aphrodite statues, bought by the Getty for $18 million. An internal Getty memo was found, published in "Chasing Aphrodite" (which was written by a pair of Los Angeles Times reporters who covered this case for years), which reads (sic): "We are saying we won't look into the provenance. We know it's stolen. Symes a fence." They were referring to Robin Symes, the British art dealer whom Italian authorities have been seeking to prosecute for years for his supposed involvement in trafficking looted antiquities.

Chasing Aphrodite lays out the elaborate case against True and the Getty, packed with notes and scrupulously detailed accounts (occasionally more scrupulous and detailed than a lay reader might enjoy, but of great value to researchers). In the end, the statute of limitations on True's trial ran out just last year. Getty paid her $3 million, essentially in order not to bring the Getty down with her. Her reputation is in tatters, and the Getty's is certainly pockmarked — the museum has unfortunately been involved in a few too many art-world scandals. They accidentally bought a kouros statue for $1 million that turned out to be a modern fake (if you've read Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink," you'll know that story), and they got blacklisted one of their own curators, Nicholas Turner, after he went public with his belief that the Getty had just purchased Old Master drawings that were not by Old Masters but were by renowned forger Eric Hebborn.

It may surprise some readers, but ARCA's trustees and the editorial board of our peer-reviewed academic journal, the Journal of Art Crime, actually nominated Marion True for an award for her efforts to curb the looting of antiquities. True has been a spokesperson for better museum practices since before her trial began. That is not to say that she did not behave inappropriately, but she has been made a scapegoat to an excessive degree and her stance on better museum acquisitions practices over the past decade-plus, taking her unfortunate prominent role and trying to recoup some good from it, is should be duly noted as admirable.

Noah Charney is the author of "The Stealing of the Mystic Lamb" and other books. To see more of his writing, read his ARTINFO blog The Secret History of Art.