This week I reviewed Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, the culmination of years of investigative journalism by authors Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. It chronicles the events leading up to the scandal centered around the Getty Museum, revealed to be one of the US's largest institutional perpetrators of stolen antiquities acquisitions. Even though the Getty was a particular example of unscrupulous practices—its first antiquities curator was even funneling stolen pieces through Los Angeles' rich and famous as "donations," effectively laundering the museum's sketchier acquisitions and providing disproportionate tax cuts for people who often never laid eyes on the objects in question—Felch and Frammolino's book reveals how widespread these practices are. Antiquity-rich source countries are constantly plagued by looters who target archaeological digs, and there's a huge network of fences and dealers who sell to foreign museums, especially the United States. The whole shebang calls into question the legitimacy of museums as benevolent educational entities, and while the labyrinth of characters can be difficult to keep straight, it's a thrilling read for anyone into art history or true crime. Tonight Felch is reading at Powell's main branch at 7:30. You can read the rest of my review here, and like I said:
Most museums' acquisition policies address this in requiring some reasonable reassurance that dealers are authorized to sell the items they present. However the sheer number of items that have been smuggled to the market makes it nearly impossible to avoid hot goods altogether. The predicament historically has created a rift between archaeologists and curators, the former arguing that when an object is stripped of its history by having its origins obscured, museums are complicit in the destruction of the very sort of education they were founded to facilitate. Curators have argued that objects are safer in their care, and that their aesthetic value is at least as important, if not more so, than their history. The Getty was found guilty of especially flagrant disregard, even while curator Marion True, the central figure in Aphrodite, made waves in the museum community for her push toward tougher policies.