Monday, June 11, 2012

Review of Chasing Aphrodite: The Getty Mess Sparks a Summer Sizzler

(originally published in Venice Magazine, July-August 2011, and posted on Chasing Aphrodite Facebook page)

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2011)

How would Gustave Flaubert update his Madame Bovary in 2011?  Perhaps, he would recast her as an ambitious art history student, eager to please and aching to get away from a boring working-class life just outside of Boston (Newburyport, to be precise).  Let’s say this updated Emma Bovary completes her degree at NYU and continues on to Harvard for a Ph.D. program but drops out when she meets an older, well-off cardiologist, looking for a trophy wife.

Now this contemporary Emma Bovary first seeks upward mobility through her marriage, just like her nineteenth-century counterpart, and spends far in excess of what her husband’s prenup lifestyle considered reasonable  – just like Flaubert’s Emma who hitched her wagon to a lowly country physician.  Dissatisfied and frustrated, our contemporary Madame Bovary takes $50,000 out of the join bank account to put a down-payment on her own condominium.  No suicide for this desperate housewife.  She got herself a Honda CVCC (surprisingly, not a Porsche) and rode out of the marriage into a heterosexually gay-divorcĂ©e sunlight.

Then what? 
She found a job in commercial gallery, an unsavory choice for a Harvard ABD (all but dissertation).  That situation proved to be a Ponzi scheme of sorts, so she moved on to the ivory-tower ethos of museums, setting her cap for a numero uno spot in the food-chain of non-academic art historians: head curator (directors, these days, are just glorified fund-raisers). Finally at the top of a major museum, she became a player in the questionable practices that collecting antiquities have to offer. 

Oh, Madame Bovary in late-capitalist America, what a mess you made because of your blind ambition. (Got yourself a nice little “cottage” in the Greek isles, though, just to feel part of the authentically wealthy society you always coveted.  Well, on a curator’s salary that’s a bit of stretch beyond financial reality, don’t you think?)

In the end, our Flaubertian, twenty-first century Madame Bovary finally faces charges in a Roman court for trafficking in illicit antiquities, “voluntarily” resigns in disgrace (not because of acquiring hot properties, but because she accepted a loan from a museum patron that would pay off her mortgage on the Greek shack), and luckily escapes prison when the statute of limitations expires in the nick of time. The final scene describes this nouvelle Madame Bovary unemployed, but still able to renovate her kitchen somewhere in France.

However outlandish this story might sound, it’s all True (Marion True) in this summer’s sizzling exposĂ©, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World Richest Museum, written by ace journalists Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino (both from the LA Times).  Their new book characterizes the Getty Museum’s head curator of antiquities, Marion True, as a Madame Bovary for our times: self-centered, crusty and driven.  (A Greek tragedy of non-epic proportions.)

On a superficial level, Chasing Aphrodite is just plain fun to read for those who hate duplicitous hypocrites and love to hear about their well-deserved comeuppance.  For marginalized academics, the public humiliation of a self-important art historian is absolutely delicious. What Schadenfreude glee to see the “righteous” punished for going along with an administration that implicitly obstructed investigations into shady provenances.  (Unfortunately, Dr. True went down without the ship.) 

Although Felch and Frammolino organized their museum muckraker tome around Marion True (a novelist could not have chosen a more ironic name for a lead protagonist), the real stars of the show are not the corrupt curator and her equally corrupt colleagues (Getty directors, CEOs, dealers and suppliers).  No, the stars of the show are the works of art: the Morgantina Venus from Sicily (late 5th century BCE), the Athlete of Fano from the Marche Region (a.k.a. Victorious Youth or “Getty Bronze”, circa 500-100 BCE), and other fabulous antiquities smuggled out of  their homelands, like kidnapped children, by some amoral nogoodniks eager for quick cash. 


What in the world is a late Hellenic bronze statue of a victorious athlete doing in the middle of Malibu, California? Why do the British believe they can take better care of the Parthenon sculptures than their hometown Athens, Greece?  Sheer arrogance and nothing but.  The soi-disant excuse is that larger and better endowed sanctuaries can keep these precious works in tip-top condition while smaller institutes cannot.  Nonsense.  Even with Greece’s current deficit, they can still handle the demands of a few antique marbles – particularly now that they have a spanking new museum waiting impatiently to receive them. 

At the heart of Chasing Aphrodite is a cautionary tale about today’s Emma Bovarys/Marion Trues of all genders, nationalities and social connections: careerist-lust can often lead to the road of perdition.  In the case of Marion True, trafficking in looted antiquities to increase her curatorial power on the world’s stage fed into the whole nefarious operation that supports criminal activity: the impoverished tombaroli (the actual scavengers on the ground in the archaeological sites that dig up these important historical artifacts), the middlemen (your average thug who could just as easily deal in drugs or arms as stolen artifacts), and the extraordinarily wealthy dealers (whose extravagant villas and showrooms front the looters’ booty). 

If crime and punishment is not your thing, then please read the Chasing Aphrodite for its take on classical antiquities. The writers educate the reader in a manner that is far from dry-as-dust, hopefully encouraging an appetite for a few scholarly publications online.  (I recommend Catherine M. Keesling’s review of Carol C. Mattusch’s book on the Victorious Youth, published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997.)  

And then, as you reach the last page, just imagine your next trip to the Getty Villa or Greek and Roman Wings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Feeling a bit complicit?  Well, say something.  According to Sotheby’s and Christie’s most recent reports, Roman antiquity sales were heating up this spring.  Did you ever stop to consider how they get this stuff? Not from the Italian government, I can assure you.  Thanks to Chasing Aphrodite, we all should know that by now and act on the knowledge.



New York Times on June 2011 Antiquities Auctions:

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Catherine M. Keeling’s Review of Carol C. Mattusch’s The Victorious Youth, Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997.


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