BMCR 2011.07.02

Chasing Aphrodite. The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum

, , Chasing Aphrodite. The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 375, pls. 8. ISBN 9780151015016. $28.00.


The eponymous limestone and marble “Cult Statue of a Goddess”, “perhaps Aphrodite” (though Hera or Persephone are other possible identifications, p. 100), featured among the Masterpieces of the J. Paul Getty Museum.1 The statue was acquired in 1988 and praised as “the most important discovery in the field of Greek art since the Getty Museum’s kouros in 1983”.2 Chasing Aphrodite follows the story of the statue from Marion True’s first encounter with it in a Battersea (London) warehouse owned by antiquities dealer Robin Symes to the preparation for its return to Sicily. Chasing Aphrodite records the response of an archaeologist, Iris Love, when she was shown black and white photographs prior to its acquisition: “I beg you, don’t buy it. You will only have troubles and problems” (p. 88). Symes initially placed the statue on loan to the Getty and in May 1988 True submitted a formal proposal for its acquisition for $18 million (pp. 94-95). This decision coincided with a leak to Thomas Hoving that the statue had been removed from the site of Morgantina in Sicily in 1979. Chasing Aphrodite maps the intervening period and in the closing paragraph the statue’s return to the Aidone museum in May 2011 is noted.

Journalists Felch and Frammolino, who worked for the Los Angeles Times, have produced a detailed account of how the J. Paul Getty Museum developed its collection and responded to Italian claims about allegedly looted antiquities. There are quotations drawn from internal memoranda and briefing papers that show the thinking by curatorial and legal teams involved with handling such cultural material. The study builds on what we already know of looting in Italy and the workings of the market.3 These were no minor objects. The Italian authorities initially identified some 42 objects acquired for $44 million (p. 198) and during this investigation this rose to 52 (p. 281). The Getty itself reportedly listed some 350 objects “valued at more than $100 million from suspect dealers” (p. 292).

At least ten of the forty objects returned to Italy by the Getty were acquired from the collection formed by Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman.4 Among them was a fragment of a Roman fresco that was associated with a fragment in the Shelby White collection (and also now returned to Italy).5 A third fragment (from the Fleischman collection) was returned to Italy in May 2009.6 One of the iconic returns from the Fleischman collection was an Etruscan terracotta antefix in the form of a Maenad and Silenus that had served as the cover illustration for the exhibition catalogue.7 Fleischman material was not confined to the Getty. In 2008 the Cleveland Museum of Art returned a Campanian bird askos to Italy that had been given by them in 1987 (inv. 1987.209).

The Fleischman collection also contained the marble head of a Cycladic female figure.8 The head was sold through Sotheby’s in 1988 and acquired by the Fleischmans from the Merrin Gallery.9 It is cited in Chasing Aphrodite as a possible illustration to show that “True had used the Fleischman collection as a front to launder illicit antiquities”. Cycladic material had not been an interest for the Fleischmans, and the head had been acquired when Lawrence Fleischman was “supposedly experiencing financial difficulties” (pp. 226-27). However it should be remembered that the fragment had formerly formed part of the Mr and Mrs A. Leuthold (said to have been acquired in 1964), and Asher Edelman collections.10 Such a collecting history should have been made clear in Chasing Aphrodite.

The fact that material returned to Italy contained objects from the Fleischman collection is significant for other reasons. Chasing Aphrodite notes, “More than 85 per cent of the objects on display had no documented ownership history, a good indication that they had been recently looted” (p. 132). This statement is derived from an unacknowledged study of several private collections of classical antiquities by this reviewer and Christopher Chippindale.11 In fact our analysis of the Fleischman collection suggested that 92 per cent of the objects in the catalogue had no indication of find-spot, and 91 per cent had surfaced subsequent to the 1973 Archaeology Institute of America Resolution on the Acquisition of Antiquities by Museums. Is the lack of collecting history——a term I prefer to provenance12—now explicable by the returns? Indeed Arthur Houghton III, a former deputy curator, is quoted: “The reality is that 95% of the antiquities on the market have been found in the last three years” (p. 61). Chasing Aphrodite provides a significant chart that suggests the Getty identified three different groups in the Fleischman collection “provenance OK”, “mixed group” and “uncertain” (p. 204). The chart is explained: “The transaction appeared to have been structured so that the Getty paid for the most legally defensible objects first and received the rest as gifts”. It is not clear which of the returned Fleischman objects fell into which of the three categories. Chasing Aphrodite also suggests that some of the collecting histories were fabricated through the issue of apparently fake receipts (p. 257). If this is the case, then it is a timely reminder that collecting histories need to be confirmed by authenticated documentation.

One aspect of the Getty story that is not told here relates to fragments of Greek, and especially Athenian, pottery. This is well illustrated by the fragmentary phiale attributed to Douris. The initial gift was by Werner Nussberger in 1981, followed by a series of purchases from Galerie Nefer (run by Nussberger’s wife) in 1985 and 1988, and an anonymous loan in 1992.13 Were pots deliberately broken after excavation? Was this to ease the sending of fragments from Italy? Or was it to tempt museums that had already acquired fragments to purchase the matching pieces? The acquisition of such “orphans” has been trivialised by James Cuno (the incoming CEO of the Getty Trust) in his discussion of Harvard’s acquisition of more than 200 fragments formerly owned by J. Robert Guy.14 It is perhaps notable that the same collector supplied some nineteen fragments for the amphora attributed to the Berlin painter that subsequently had to be returned to Italy by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.15

Is the acquisition of recently surfaced antiquities a problem that is confined to the Getty or to North America? So far well over 100 objects have been returned to Italy from North American public and private collections.16 The items have included the Sarpedon krater and the Morgantina silver treasure from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the marble statue of Sabina from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and various items from the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Princeton University Art Museum. Additional material has been returned from the private collection of Shelby White, as well as from the stock of the Royal-Athena Galleries in New York City. But Chasing Aphrodite reminds us that other museums have material identified by the Polaroid photographs: Minneapolis, San Antonio, Toledo and Fort Worth (p. 176; 274). Although the objects are not specified, they are likely to include the Attic krater, attributed to the Methyse painter, that was purchased from Robin Symes and now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and material that passed through the Gilbert M. Denman, Jr. collection (after purchase on the London market) prior to formal acquisition by the San Antonio Museum of Art.17 Other countries mentioned by Chasing Aphrodite include Australia, Denmark, France, Japan, Spain, and Switzerland. Specific museums are not singled out although many have been named in recent press reports.

Chasing Aphrodite refers to the “Nostoi” exhibition in the Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome.18 The objects are described as “prodigal artefacts” though the adjective is perhaps inappropriate. The items did not choose to move to North America but were apparently ripped from their archaeological contexts; and they did not return from abroad of their own will, but because a team of Italian officials cared passionately about the protection of their nation’s cultural heritage. The exhibition catalogue carried a message from Michael Brand, the director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, who saw it as a “milestone” in the cultural property debate (“Questa mostra si presenta come una pietra miliare nel complesso dibattito internazionale sul patrimonio culturale. Essa testimonia il profondo sforzo dell’Italia e di altri Paesi per combattere il traffico illecito di beni antichi, processo favorito anche dalla rigorosa politica adottata dal Getty Museum nell’ottobre del 2006 a proposito delle nuove acquisizioni.”)19

The Nostoi exhibition featured one of the crucial pieces in Chasing Aphrodite, a Protocorinthian olpe. The olpe was acquired in 1982, though Chasing Aphrodite does not note that it was a gift of Werner Nussberger.20 Nussberger was the husband of Frida Tchacos of Galerie Nefer. Chasing Aphrodite explains how the olpe had been the subject of correspondence between Marion True and Medici in 1992 in which it had been revealed that the olpe had been found in the Monte Abatone cemetery at Cerveteri and thus demonstrating that Medici had been the ultimate source (pp. 212-13).

The Onesimos cup featured in the 1997 call by Maria Antonietta Rizzo at the University of Viterbo for the return of the piece (pp. 156-57). The cup had been acquired in fragments between 1983 and 1985 from sources such as Galerie Nefer (the tondo, via Nino Savoca of Munich) and the Hydra Gallery (via Christian Boursaud and the so-called Zbinden collection), and subsequently been published by Dyfri Williams.21 The piece was returned to Italy in 1999 (pp. 176-77).22 The Etruscan graffito on the cup is suggestive that it was indeed found at Cerveteri. Two additional fragments were added in 2005 by Medici, and another in 2008 from two men who worked at Cerveteri.

Chasing Aphrodite has two parallel strands: the pursuit of “beauty” so that the goddess could be acquired for the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the pursuit of the truth behind the acquisition that reveals the networks behind the market, and the acceptance of such illicit activities by senior members of the North American museum community. The charting of the intellectual consequences of such pursuits will demonstrate how the study of the ancient world has been irreversibly damaged. Part I: Windfalls and Cover-ups
1. The Lost Bronze
2. A Perfect Scheme
3. Too Moral
4. Worth the Price
5. An Awkward Debut
6. The Windblown Goddess
7. The Cult of Persephone
Part II: The Temptation of Marion True
8. The Aptly Named Dr. True
9. The Fleischman Collection
10. A Home in the Greek Islands
11. Conforti’s Men
12. The Getty’s Latest Treasure
13. Follow the Polaroids
14. A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Part III: “After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?”
15. Troublesome Documents
16. Mountains and Molehills
17. Rogue Museums
18. The Reign of Munitz
19. The April Fools’ Day Indictment
20. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
21. True Believers
22. A Bright Line
Epilogue: Beyond Ownership


1. Masterpieces of the J. Paul Getty Museum: Antiquities. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997. Reviewed in BMCR 98.6.08.

2. Quoted by D.W.J. Gill in BMCR 98.6.08.

3. Peter Watson, Sotheby’s, the Inside Story (London: Bloomsbury, 1997); Peter Watson and Celia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy: the Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Great Museums (New York: Public Affairs, 2006); Vernon Silver, The Lost Chalice: the Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece (New York: William Morrow, 2009). See also David W.J. Gill and Christopher Chippindale, “The Illicit Antiquities Scandal: What it has Done to Classical Archaeology Collections,” American Journal of Archaeology 111 (2007), 571-74 (available online).

4. Exhibition catalogue, A Passion for Antiquities: Ancient Art from the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman (Malibu, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum in Association with the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1994), nos. 34, 35, 39, 56, 65, 83, 90, 120, 126 and 179.

5. Dietrich von Bothmer (ed.), Glories of the Past: Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990), no. 142.

6. A Passion for Antiquities, no. 125.

7. A Passion for Antiquities, no. 92. The antefix had earlier formed part of the Hunt collection: J.F. Tompkins (ed.), Wealth of the Ancient World: the Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt Collections (Fort Worth (TX): Kimbell Art Museum, 1983), no. 16.

8. A Passion for Antiquities, no. 6.

9. Merrin Gallery: Image.

10. Pat Getz-Preziosi, Early Cycladic Art in North American Collections (Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), no. 43.

11. Christopher Chippindale and David W. J. Gill, “Material Consequences of Contemporary Classical Collecting.” American Journal of Archaeology 104 (2000), 463-511. Shelby White responded to our study in Rebecca Mead, “Den of Antiquity: the Met and the Antiquities Market,” The New Yorker April 9, 2007, 52-61 (esp. p. 60). Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway addressed some of the issues raised by Mead’s article in 2007.08.10.

12. David W.J. Gill, “Collecting Histories and the Market for Classical Antiquities.” Journal of Art Crime 3 (2010), 3-10.

13. D.W.J. Gill and C. Chippindale, “From Malibu to Rome: Further Developments on the Return of Antiquities,” International Journal of Cultural Property 14 (2007), 209, fig. 4, 228, no. 10. Martin Robertson, “A Fragmentary Phiale by Douris.” In Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum 5; Occasional Papers on Antiquities 7, 74-98 (Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1991). The cup is also discussed in Silver, Lost Chalice, 166-69.

14. James Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 22-23. See review by David W.J. Gill, in American Journal of Archaeology 113, 1 (2009), online. The Harvard fragments were published by Aaron J. Paul, “Fragments of Antiquity: Drawing upon Greek Vases,” Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin 5 (1997), 1-87.

15. Formerly New York MMA inv. 1985.11.5. The additional fragments were inv. 1985.315. See Dietrich von Bothmer, review in American Journal of Archaeology 92, 1 (1988), 142.

16. David W.J. Gill, “Homecomings: Learning from the Return of Antiquities to Italy,” in Noah Charney (ed.), Art and Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009), 13-25; id., “The Returns to Italy from North America: an Overview,” Journal of Art Crime 3 (2010), 105-09.

1.17] H.A. Shapiro, C. A. Picón, and G. D. Scott (eds.), Greek vases in the San Antonio Museum of Art (San Antonio: San Antonio Museum of Art, 1995).

18. L. Godart and S. De Caro (eds.). 2007. Nostoi: Capolavori ritrovati. Roma, Palazzo del Quirinale, Galleria di Alessandro VII, 21 dicembre 2007 – 2 marzo 2008. Rome: Segretariato Generale della Presidenza della Repubblica, 2007. See also D.W.J. Gill, “Exhibition Review: Nostoi. December 2007, Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome,” The Journal of Art Crime 1 (2009), 70-71. For a further selection of returned antiquities: L.D. Volpe, L’Arma per l’Arte: Antologia di meraviglie (Rome: Sillabe, 2009).

19. Michael Brand in Nostoi: Capolavori ritrovati, 30.

20. Nostoi: Capolavori ritrovati, no. 2. As stated in Gill and Chippindale, “From Malibu to Rome”, 228 no. 6.

21. Nostoi: Capolavori ritrovati, no. 10. Dyfri Williams, “Onesimos and the Getty Iliupersis,” in Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum 5; Occasional Papers on Antiquities 7, 41-64 (Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1991). See also Watson and Todeschini, Medici Conspiracy, 94-95; Silver, Lost Chalice, 142-43 (for fragment donated by Dietrich von Bothmer). For the graffito: J. Heurgon, “Graffites étrusque au J. Paul Getty Museum,” in Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum 4, 181-86 (Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1989).

22. A.M.M. Sgubini, Euphronios epoiesen: un dono d’eccezione ad Ercole Cerite (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1999). ​