Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Candid Review of Chasing Aphrodite

I’ve been reading a lot of wonderful reviews over the summer for Chasing Aphrodite, by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. (I particularly recommend Derek Fincham’s review, which I think best sums up the superiority of this text as a highly efficient and effective journalistic take on the Getty’s scandals.) Now that I have finally read it for myself, Chasing Aphrodite didn’t let me down. Everything everyone has been saying in various reviews applies to my view as well: it is a beautifully written tome that seamlessly organizes decades of complicated transgressions and scandals into one fluid linear narrative. Magically, this is done without any dryness or sensationalism whatsoever. All the complicated U.S. and international laws on antiquities and trafficking are described briefly and effectively; the personal in-fighting and politics at the Getty are mentioned when necessary but not hyped up for a glorified gossip fest; and though the personal views of the authors are somewhat transparent in their treatment of figures like Philippe de Montebello and James Cuno (I’m not disagreeing or anything though), they have still set themselves far enough back to give a fair and thorough account.

The perks that no one with a Master’s degree likes to talk about are the truly endearing and irrelevant bits of information that infuse the book with a beautiful sense of humanity. I found myself “awwing” out loud when Daniela Rizzo and Maurizio Pellegrini fall in love while matching photos of antiquities from Giacomo Medici’s raided warehouse to photos of works at the Getty over pizza during all-nighters. That’s my ultimate idea of romance. I’m not kidding. At the end of the book, I was particularly tickled by the mention of Tom Cruise and Katie Holme’s wedding, which took place during the final stages of the legal battle over the Getty’s looted Italian artifacts. I was even more tickled when the authors referred to them as “TomKat” and described the totally surreal scene of two beaten down lawyers trying to figure out their case in a hotel lobby, surrounded by celebrities in town for the nuptials.

Quirks aside, I firmly believe that every student interested in the illicit antiquities trade should read this book. It is non-negotiable in fostering your understanding of the issues. Not only is it well-written and entertaining, but it describes the trade from the top down better than any other book I’ve read so far. Without sparing any detail of how complicated, intricate, and straight up confusing the trade can be, the authors have clearly and eloquently laid out all the types of major contenders, the roles they play, how they play them, and the consequences. They do a particularly good job of demonstrating how badly equipped police forces are in dealing with these issues and how ineffective the law has been in staunching the flow of artifacts from ground to collector. In this book, you will learn what took me years and multiple books and articles to understand: how the trade is configured, how it operates, the names and roles of the most important people who were operating and benefitting from the trade, and how it came to be this way.

Most importantly, though the Getty scandal is unique, the points of view expressed by many of the people in the book are not. This all happened just a few years ago, and I get the feeling that many museums and institutions are already acting like it’s as historical as Napoleon dragging whole temples back with him from Egypt. There’s this sense of “people just don’t do that anymore”, which is totally false and incredibly dangerous. College students, I’m talking to you. Study the people in this book. Take your time to note the best and worst parts of this world we’ll soon be stepping into, because even though it has changed, in many ways it is still the same. (Especially because James Cuno is now at the Getty.) We need to prepare ourselves for the kind of politics, hypocrisy, and temptations that we’ll find there, and begin building and solidifying our own ethical codes while we’re still dirt poor and not in a position to accept great sums of money for doing questionable things at major institutions.

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