Editor's choice: "Chasing Aphrodite" by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
How did one of the world’s wealthiest museums end up keeping company with an international coterie of thieves and thugs?
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Don’t mistake this title for a beach book. Felch and Frammolino are serious men, investigative reporters at the top of their games, who very intelligently lay out all the issues at stake here, and you’d probably do best to read this one sitting up straight.Skip to next paragraph
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But like all of the titles above, “Chasing Aphrodite” is blessed with the odd allure that marks the world of art itself – a world that Felch and Frammolino describe as “glamorous but not pretty.”
Low-down thugs rub elbows with terrifyingly erudite curators and ridiculously wealthy collectors, all of them almost helplessly attracted to a handful of the most beautiful objects in the world. Museum staffs with more PhDs per capita than you’ll find at MIT create “spiteful environment[s]” in which a sense of entitlement runs wild and trips to Paris on the Concorde are viewed as a basic right. And then there are the earnest investigators – Italian, in this case – driven by a deep-seated conviction that what’s theirs is theirs and that when it comes to the finest of antiquities “such loveliness belongs at home.”
“Chasing Aphrodite” is perhaps not the sexiest of the behind-the-scenes art books but it may be the most thorough. Felch and Frammolino researched their topic for five years, doing countless interviews and enjoying access to confidential Getty files. The result is a book so tightly nailed down that when they describe a meeting you sometimes learn who sat where and what the weather was like that day.
That’s not to say that it’s not a page turner. As a reader it’s impossible not to become engaged with characters like True, who started life in blue-collar Massachusetts but eventually landed – thanks to morally questionable intervention on the part of some wealthy friends of the Getty – a Greek villa of her own.
It’s a world that’s as distant from most of us as the Peloponnesian War – and yet as close as the museum that you visited last week.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.