The Commonwealth Blog

Taking Down the Illicit Trade in Antiquities

Jun 14, 2011 @ 11:12 AM by jzipperer with [0] comments

By John Dangaran

On July 12, The Commonwealth Club of California will host two authors, both Pulitzer Prize finalists in investigative reporting for their work at the Los Angeles Times in 2006.

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino led the investigation that brought the trade of illicit objects to a grinding halt at American museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and, most famously, Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum.

What was first thought to be a small, local issue in Los Angeles soon caught fire and began to spread around the globe, centering on the dealings of Getty curator Marion True. During True’s tenure from 1986-2005, the Getty museum collected 46 pieces of ancient art that the Italian Ministry of Culture described as being illicitly excavated and smuggled out of the country.

Among the more noted items of the collection is the “Getty Bronze,” otherwise known as the “Victorious Youth,” a bronze statue pulled from international waters in 1964 by Italian fishermen. Also under scrutiny was the “Getty Goddess,” thought to be Aphrodite or possibly even Persephone, which was uncovered in Sicily in 1970 and had served as the museum’s main attraction for 22 years. In the wake of Felch and Frammolino’s investigation, both have recently been returned to Italy along with 38 other items.

Since then, with the leading effort of the Getty Museum, the will for museums to buy and own art has largely declined in the hopes of helping prevent the looting of historical sites and the selling of artifacts on the black market. Through their negotiations with the Italian government, the Getty has helped start the trend of “long-term” loans on art and artifacts across the country. These loan programs will not only save the museums funds, but will also offer the opportunity for them to obtain items for their viewers that before would not have been thought possible.

Felch and Frammolino will speak July 12 about their investigative reporting as well as their new book Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum. Ticket information may be found on our website.