Is this a growing new genre – or am I just a latecomer to the party?
Either way, I find myself becoming ever fonder of an intriguing niche in the world of nonfiction: books about what happens behind the scenes in the world of great art.
First (for me, anyway) there was Jonathan Harr’s 2006 book “The Lost Painting,” which describes the life of a long-lost masterpiece by Caravaggio and reads like a fabulous detective story. Then there was “The Gardner Heist” by Ulrich Boser (2009), a terrific read about the infamous 1990 theft of 13 masterpieces off the walls of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. And “Provenance” by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo (2009) is an amazing story about one of the most audacious scams in the history of art.
Now the latest art-world exposé that I’m adding to my library shelf is Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum by Los Angeles Times reporters Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino.
Felch and Frammolino team up to tell the story of how one of America’s most prestigious and powerful museums – the Getty Museum of Los Angeles – found itself at the center of a storm over looted antiquities. In truth the Getty – and its curator, Marion True, who became the scandal’s poster child for misdoing – for the most part did nothing that other leading US museums hadn’t been doing for years. Behind their pristine facades, virtually every major US museum dealt with looters and crooks to procure black-market masterpieces – taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance toward questions of both ethics and legalities.
“Chasing Aphrodite” tells what happened when some of the world’s most victimized countries finally rose up and said, “Don’t do this anymore – or we’ll see you in court.”
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.
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.