Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum

by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

Two investigative reporters for the Los Angeles Times explore the looted antiquities scandal at the Getty Museum.

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780151015016
  • ISBN-10: 0151015015
  • Pages: 384
  • Publication Date: 05/24/2011
  • Carton Quantity: 12

About the book
In recent years, several of America’s leading art museums have voluntarily given up their finest pieces of classical art to the governments of Italy and Greece. The monetary value is estimated at over half a billion dollars. Why would they be moved to such unheard-of generosity? 

The answer lies at the Getty, one of the world’s richest and most troubled museums, and scandalous revelations that it had been buying looted antiquities for decades. Drawing on a trove of confidential museum records and frank interviews, Felch and Frammolino give us a fly-on-the-wall account of the inner workings of a world-class museum and tell the story of the Getty’s dealings in the illegal antiquities trade. The outlandish characters and bad behavior could come straight from the pages of a thriller—the wealthy recluse founder, the cagey Italian art investigator, the playboy curator, the narcissist CEO—but their chilling effects on the rest of the art world have been all too real, as the authors show in novelistic detail. 

Fast-paced and compelling, Chasing Aphrodite exposes the layer of dirt beneath the polished façade of the museum business.

About the author
Jason Felch

JASON FELCH is an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times. In 2006 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting for exposing the role of the J. Paul Getty Museum and other American museums in the black market for looted antiquities. His work has also been honored by Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Education Writers Association, the National Association of Science Writers, and the Society for Environmental Journalism. He lives in Pasadena, California, with his wife and son.

Ralph Frammolino

RALPH FRAMMOLINO reported for nearly 25 years at the Los Angeles Times, where he and former colleague Jason Felch were finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for their articles about the J. Paul Getty Museum and looted antiquities. His work has also appeared in the New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review. Frammolino is now a media consultant for various aid projects in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, where he trains working journalists on investigative reporting techniques and right to information laws.



The Lost Bronze

In the pre-dawn light of a summer morning in 1964, the 60-

foot fishing trawler Ferrucio Ferri shoved off from the Italian seaport

of Fano and motored south, making a steady eight knots along

Italy’s east coast. When the Ferri reached the peninsula of Ancona,

Romeo Pirani, the boat’s captain, set a course east-southeast, half way

between the dry scirocco wind that blew up from Africa and the cooler

levanti that swept across the Adriatic from Yugoslavia.

 The six-man crew dozed. The sea was glassy, but Pirani knew how

temperamental the Adriatic could be this time of year. Just a few

weeks earlier, a sudden storm had blown across the sea, sinking three

boats and killing four fishermen. Weather was not his only worry.

The Second World War had left its mark on the sea and made his job

all the more dangerous. Nets hauled up mines and bombs left behind

decades ago by retreating Nazi forces or their American pursuers.

The arms of many men in Fano bore scars from the acid that oozed

out of the rusting ordnance.

 As the sun rose, blinding their eyes, Pirani and his crew sipped

moretta, a hot mixture of rum, brandy, espresso and anise, topped

with a lemon rind and lots of sugar. The strong brew gave the men

not just warmth, but courage. By nightfall, the Ferri had reached its

destination, a spot in international waters roughly midway between

Italy and Yugoslavia. The captain knew of a rocky outcropping that

rose from the seabed where schools of merluza, St. Peter’s Fish and

octopus gathered for safety in the summer heat. Other boats ventured

farther east, into the deep waters off the Yugoslav coast, where they

risked arrest for poaching, But Pirani preferred this hidden shoal.

While fishing there meant occasionally snagging the nets on sharp

rocks, the boat often returned to port full.

 The crew cast its nets into the dark waters. They fished all night,

sleeping in shifts.

 Just after dawn, the nets tugged, catching a snag. Pirani gunned

the engine and, with a jolt, the nets came free. As some peered over

the side, the crew hauled in its catch: A barnacle-encrusted object that

resembled a man.

 “Cest un morto!” cried one of the fishermen. A dead man!

 As the sea gave up its secret, it quickly became apparent that the

thing was too rigid and heavy to be a man. The crew dragged it to the

bow of the boat. The life-sized figure weighed about 300 pounds and

had black holes for eyes and was frozen in a curious pose. Its right

hand was raised to its head. Given the thickness of its encrustations,

it looked as if it had been resting on the ocean floor for centuries.

 The men went about the immediate work of mending the torn

nets. It was only later, when they stopped for a breakfast of roasted

fish, that one of them grabbed a gaffe and pried off a patch of barnacles.

 He let out a yelp.

 “Cest de oro!” he cried, pointing at the flash of brilliant yellow. It’s


 Pirani pushed through the huddle and looked at the exposed metal.

Not gold, he declared, bronze. None had ever seen anything like it. It

might be worth something. The Ferri’s men made a hasty decision.

Rather than turn it over to local authorities, they would sell the figure

and divvy the profits.

 As the Ferri motored back to Fano that afternoon, word came over

the radio that the town was afire with news of the discovery. The

spark had come earlier, when the Captain had mentioned it while

chatting ship-to-shore with his wife. Now crowds had gathered in the

port for the Ferri’s return. Pirani cut the engine and waited until

nightfall. By the time the Ferri pulled into port, it was nearly 3 a.m.

and the docks were deserted.

 The crew brought the statue ashore on a handcart, hidden under a

pile of nets, and took it to the house of Pirani’s cousin, who owned the

boat. After a few days, the statue began to smell of rotting fish. The

cousin moved it to a covered garden patio and quietly invited several

local antique sellers to have a look. They offered up to one million

lire, but the crew wanted more.

 With the statue’s stench growing stronger by the day, the cousin

fretted that someone would alert police. He asked a friend with a Fiat

600 Mutipla to pick up the bronze statue and take it to a farm outside

town, where they buried it in a cabbage field while they looked for a

serious buyer.

 A month later, they found Giacomo Barbetti, an antiquarian whose

wealthy family owned a cement factory in Gubbio, 50 miles inland

from Fano. Barbetti said he was prepared to pay several million lire

for the statue but naturally needed to see it first. When the figure

emerged from the cabbage patch, Barbetti brushed aside the dirt,

touched its straight nose and surmised it to be the work of Lysippus,

one of the master sculptors of ancient Greece.

 Lysippos was the personal sculptor of Alexander the Great, and his

fame as a sculptor spread throughout the ancient world on the heels of

his patron’s conquests. Lysippos rewrote the canon for Greek sculpture

with figures that were more slender and symmetrical than those

of his predecessors Polycleitus and the great Phidias, sculptor of the

Acropolis friezes. Aside from busts of Alexander, Lysippos was famous

for depicting athletes, and many of his bronzes lined the pathways

of Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic games. Lysippos is said to

have created over 1,500 sculptures in his lifetime, but none was believed

to have survived antiquity.

 Except, perhaps, this one. The bronze athlete in the cabbage patch

may well have been one of those lining the pathways to Olympia, only

to become war booty for Rome, whose glory slowly eclipsed that of

Athens. As they swept through the Greek mainland and islands,

Roman soldiers filled thousands of ships with plunder. It was likely in

one such raid that the bronze athlete was torn from its pedestal some

300 years after its creation and loaded on to a waiting transport ship

for Rome. The Adriatic was as fickle then as it is today, whipping up

deadly storms without warning. Around the time of Christ, the ship

bearing the bronze athlete apparently sank to the sea floor, where it

lay for two thousand years.

 As Barbetti touched the foul-smelling figure’s nose he clearly saw

something he liked. He offered 3.5 million lire — about $4,000,

enough to buy several houses in Fano at the time. The money was

split among the crew. Captain Pirani’s share was about $1,600, double

his monthly wages.

 The bronze, meanwhile, was on the move.


"America’s great art museums are the last sacred cows of our culture. It takes a special sort of intrepid investigator backed by a courageous organization to uncover the secrets and lies of these quasi-public institutions and the private agendas of their wealthy and influential patrons. Chasing Aphrodite is the result of one such rare convergence. A scary, true tale of the blinding allure of great art and the power of the wealth that covets it, it is also an inspiring example of the only greater power: the truth."-  Michael Gross, author of Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum

"A thrilling, well-researched book that offers readers a glimpse into the back-room dealings of a world-class museum--and the illegal trade of looted antiquities. Chasing Aphrodite should not be missed. " –Ulrich Boser, author of THE GARDNER HEIST: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft

"Chasing Aphrodite is an epic story that, from the first page, grabs you by the lapels and won’t let go. Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino have penetrated the inner sanctum of one of the world’s most powerful museums, exposing how its caretakers – blinded by greed, arrogance  and self-deception – eagerly tapped international networks of criminals in pursuit of the next great masterpiece.  It is a breathtaking tale that I guarantee will keep you reading late into the night. - Kurt Eichenwald, author of CONSPIRACY OF FOOLS: A True Story

"Chasing Aphrodite is a brilliantly told, richly detailed, and vitally important account of how one of America’s top cultural institutions spent millions buying treasures stolen from ancient graves and then spent millions more trying to deny it. In the hands of Felch and Frammolino, the story gathers a riveting momentum as the Getty moves from one ethical smashup to another. The authors present an astonishing array of evidence, yet they are scrupulously balanced and keenly sensitive to the nuances of the cultural-property debate. Even if you think you know the story of the Getty, read this book. You won’t know whether to laugh or to cry, but you will be enthralled."  --Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World