Book Talk: Shedding light on antiquities' origin

Fri May 20, 2011 9:27am EDT
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By Bernard Vaughan

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - One bit of information museums don't often include on placards explaining the origins of ancient artifacts is how they were obtained.

But in a new book, "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum," Los Angeles Times reporters Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino delved into this opaque world.

It is the culmination of a five-year investigation of the J. Paul Getty Museum. For more than 40 years, the Getty chased numerous beautiful, but looted antiquities, ultimately causing an international legal battle with Italy.

Felch spoke with Reuters about the book and a shadowy market in which a highly educated curator could find herself negotiating with obscure criminals in a Swiss bank vault.

Q: How does a reporter get on the stolen antiquities beat?

A: "I started at the Times in 2004, and my first day on the job, the investigative editor said, 'Would you mind helping out with some coverage? The museum director at the Getty Museum has just stepped down and nobody knows why.' That began a year-long investigation into Barry Munitz, the CEO of the Getty, about his misuse of tax-exempt money. Toward the end that reporting, a source said there's a whole other story here that's actually far bigger, that involves our antiquities department."

Q: Some of the most moving scenes are when museum officials are confronted with pictures of their masterpieces soon after being looted from tombs. Why do you think that affected them so much?

A: "It was known in an abstract way that the people who were trafficking in this stuff were shady people. But museums fancy themselves elite institutions that traffic in high ideas, not stolen property. There was never any proof, and the Getty was able to say 'Prove it.'   Continued...