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“Chasing Aphrodite”: My Q&A with the Getty Regarding Book&#146s Revelations

Ralph Frammolino, left, and Jason Felch with their finished product

Felcholino, the investigative reporting team, above (who clearly appreciate my nickname for them), have been doing a victory lap in Sicily, where the eponymous, although probably misnamed (scroll down), goddess of their new book, Chasing Aphrodite, was unveiled Tuesday in a small museum in Aidone, Italy, after having been a star attraction for more than two decades at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Two Getty curators, Karol Wight and Claire Lyons, attended Italy’s celebration of the return of this 425 – 400 B.C., seven-foot Greek sculpture to the country from which it had likely been looted.

Cult Statue of a Goddess (the “Aphrodite” aka “Morgantina Venus”), 425-400 B.C., Greek, returned to Italy by the J. Paul Getty Museum

The Los Angeles museum’s acting director, David Bomford, did not attend the ceremony but offered a written statement for the occasion, cryptically titled: Remarks from David Bomford, Acting Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, on
the Occasion of the Opening of the Renovated Gallery at the Museo
Archeologico in Aidone

The publication date of Felcholino’s muckraking tome is next Tuesday, but many of us, including officials at the Getty, have been reading advance copies. Following up on my cordially contentious antiquities-related LA Public Radio discussion with Ron Hartwig, the Getty Trust’s vice president for communications (who has a more favorable view than mine about the naming of James Cuno as the Getty’s new president), this seemed like a good time to get the Getty’s advance review of the book that dredges up all the dirt that the Getty would rather wipe its hands clean of.

Here’s my rather long-winded question and Hartwig’s that-was-then, this-is-now response. (Remarks in brackets were added by me later):

ROSENBAUM: What is the Getty’s overall response to “Chasing Aphrodite”? Do you
feel it is a fair and accurate report, or do you take exception to it
(or to certain parts of it)? If the latter, what are the specific
aspects of the book with which you take issue and why?

To my mind, the most serious, documented allegation in the book is
that most or all the key players at the Getty (including John Walsh and
Deborah Gribbon [both former directors of the Getty Museum]) knew full well that a significant number of antiquities
acquisitions, due to their dicey provenance, were likely to have been or almost
certainly were looted and/or illegally exported, but the administration
deliberately engaged in a cover-up of this knowledge. Is this an
accurate depiction of what happened at the Getty? If not, why not?

HARTWIG: “Chasing Aphrodite” recounts a dark period in the Getty’s history. The events in the book have been written about and dissected for decades now [most notably by Felcholino in their eye-opening series of articles for the LA Times, now considerably augmented with startling new revelations].

But, that period is over; it is history. Most of those involved have passed away or are no longer with the Getty, so we aren’t going to discuss or debate specifics.

The Getty is a changed organization. We now have perhaps the best governance policies and procedures among nonprofits, our acquisition policy [my links, not his] is among the strongest in the museum community, and we have renewed, positive relations with both Italy and Greece. We are glad that Jason and Ralph have talked about the Getty’s role in leading reform in interviews about their book [my link to their NPR discussion, not Hartwig’s].

We are focused on what is happening today, and on the future. Our goal is to make sure the Getty’s excellent work here in Los Angeles, and around the world—collecting and exhibiting art, providing opportunities for scholars and researchers to further their studies, and helping to preserve cultural heritage—overwhelms the negatives associated with a chapter now closed.

I also thought it prudent to question the Getty’s general counsel, Stephen Clark, about any possible legal difficulties raised by the issues explored by Felcholino:

ROSENBAUM: Regarding “Chasing Aphrodite,” I’m wondering
whether you see any legal complications, going forward, from the
revelations therein. Do you have any concern that either foreign or U.S.
prosecutors might find cause to follow up on the book’s revelations
(some of which have already appeared in the LA Times)?

The authors strongly suggest a pattern of purchases of looted
and/or illegally exported antiquities, with full knowledge (or at least
very strong suspicions) by former Getty officials of the dicey nature of
those acquisitions. Do you foresee any legal issues being raised because
of this?

Also, could you please update me on the latest status of the Getty
Bronze case

CLARK: I don’t see any likelihood of foreign or U.S. governments initiating new legal proceedings based on the Felch and Frammolino book. All of the information in the book has been public for many years now, and all of the questionable objects have been restituted.

The Court of Cassation in Rome remanded the Getty Bronze case to the local court in Pesaro. A judge there will review the matter starting with a hearing in July.

However, while the objects have been restituted [and can we be sure that there are no more “questionable” pieces?], the enormous financial resources that the Getty held in public trust and lavished on the acquisition of objects that it later saw fit to relinquish could conceivably be regarded by an overzealous government watchdog as having been misspent.

Felcholino are scheduled to be co-panelists with me for the session on “Investigating the Arts” (now colorfully renamed, “Digging Culture: The Fine Art of Investigating the Business of Museums and Collectors”), June 10, 12-1 p.m., at the national conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) in Orlando. Our fourth scheduled panelist is James Grimaldi of the Washington Post, known for probing the compensation and expense reimbursements of top Smithsonian executives (notably former Secretary Lawrence Small and former director of the National Museum of the American Indian W. Richard West Jr.).

Speaking of the upcoming IRE conference, my warm thanks go out to CultureGrrl Repeat Donors 165 and 166 from Little Rock and Atlanta, who stepped up to my “Send CultureGrrl to Orlando” challenge by clicking my “Donate” button. I now have enough contributions for half of my two-night stay.

Would anyone like to help underwrite the second night? (I promise that Grimaldi won’t investigate you for paying me excessive compensation!)

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