Jason Felch, "Chasing Aphrodite": Authors at Google

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 10.04.2012

>>Steve Meany: Hello everybody. How ya doin'? Thanks for joining us today. My name is Steve
Meany, I'm a Googler and it's actually my pleasure to bring a friend of mine of all
people, Jason Felch, to come speak with you all.
For those that don't know everything about Jason like I do, he is an award winning journalist
from the L.A. Times, he's also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and he's actually
gonna be discussing what he and his colleague, Ralph Frammolino, put into that work not just
in the L.A. Times but also into the book entitled Chasing Aphrodite which chronicles basically
the illicit antiquities trade as it existed in one of the world's richest museums. And
as you'll see from today's discussion how that sort of, that web actually got larger
and larger and spread to many of the world's most well known museums.
Their book, Chasing Aphrodite, uncovers really the roots of Jason and Ralph's discovery and
what was chronicled in the L.A. Times. His talk is gonna provide basically the insider's
view of the illicit antiquities trade as well as the international black market in recently
excavated artifacts.
So Jason and I sort of talked about like what is the purpose, like he's done talks like
this before from anywhere from the Commonwealth Club to NPR to wherever it might be and we
talked about what should be the purpose in coming to Google and sharing this with you
all here today and the folks who are gonna watch this on video later?
It's really sort of boils down to three pieces: one is to really just educate you on the findings
and the research in the book, that's of course very important and I wouldn't actually be
a card carrying sales person here of this company if I didn't mention that the books
are for sale right over here so feel free to buy one later, also to give you a greater
appreciation of this topic and really why it's important to all of us.
And the last piece is really, I think, uniquely Google and that is Jason's here to actually
solicit some help. This, as you'll find out from today's discussion, this topic doesn't
end today, like, it's going to spread. And what I mean by spread is that while Jason's
uncovered and Ralph have uncovered a problem, they need help to solve that problem. A And
so as we sort of think about this today I wanted all of you to think about just our
quest, organize the world's information, didn't necessarily start in 1998; it actually extends
to the past. And we actually have, in my opinion, a chance to sort of recover and organize historical
data, historical knowledge, and for those of you that are interested in reaching out
to Jason and helping him in this quest, I actually think it's very worthwhile endeavor.
So Jason'll touch on sort of how we can all help him as he moves forward.
So without further ado, Jason.
>>Jason Felch: Thank you Steve. Steve and I went to high school together in San Francisco
and played on the volleyball team and I've seen him a few times since, but it's a pleasure
to be back here with Steve and thank you all very much for coming today.
As Steve mentioned I wanna talk for probably about half an hour about the book and about
the world that we got into in the book and then save some time at the end for your questions,
for a conversation, and for pitch because as Steve hinted I need help. I have an idea
for a project that could harness technology to address some of the problems raised in
the book in the illicit antiquities trade, but I'm not a tech guy. I'm a journalist so
I'm hoping some of you here might either be people or know people who might be able to
help out with this. So I'll save some time at the end to talk about that.
Before I start can I just get a sense for who's in the room, how many people here are
Oh wonderful. And of the Googlers here how many of you are engineers or do actual technology
stuff? Nice, wonderful. And how many people, I noticed there's some Stanford archeology
people here? Wonderful, hello, welcome. You'll correct me if I get any of the archaeological
references wrong?
To start I wanted to tell a little bit of story and it's the story that's kind of at
the heart of the book. It's the story of the J. Paul Getty Museum and it starts with this
man. J. Paul Getty was, in his day, the world's richest man. Getty was something of a miser,
he was a misanthrope, and he was a thoroughly unpleasant person to most people who knew
him, but he was a passionate collector. He was passionate really about three things
in life, the first you see here. The other two were money and art.
He was known to keep a running diary everyday of every dollar that he spent on everything
down to the penny and the rumors about him having a pay phone in his house at Sutton
Place, this huge manor outside of London, are true. In fact, I just, giving a presentation
the other day, ran into somebody who visited Getty at his Italian villa and there was a
pay phone there, too. So Getty didn't like to spend money when he didn't have to. He
had made his vast fortune in the oil fields; he inherited his father's oil business, Getty
And in the oil business you drill holes in the ground hoping to hit oil and that was
kind of the approach he took to art, too. He was out there looking for bargains and
hoping to find something that was under-priced that he could buy and kind of find this lost
The area of art that he was most passionate about was ancient art; he imagined himself
as something like the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian who'd been this great philanthropist
and patron of the arts in his time. And he imagined his oil company, which by the time
Getty took it over as a young man, really spread its arms all around the world; he imagined
that as something like the Roman Empire.
And so he had fantasies of grandeur and ancient art, antiquities, gave him an opportunity
to kind of feel the past in his own hands. And so he was a passionate collector, he was
not always a very good collector, a lot of the objects he bought ended up proving to
be fakes or not what he thought they were, but he bought a lot particularly in the 50s
and 60s and the 70s.
He being a skin flint didn't like having to pay taxes on this growing art collection and
so his tax advisor in the 1950s told him, "Well you know if you dedicate these two rooms
in your house in Malibu and call them a museum, a public museum, you can actually treat these
art purchases as a tax write off." And so the Getty Museum has its origins in a tax
Eventually Getty went on to build a much larger building for his collection; this is the Getty
Villa today. Getty ordered this built from his house in London in the 1970s and he based
it off of a Roman villa that had been excavated just outside of Pompeii and it had been buried
by the eruption of Vesuvius. And so Getty had found the plans for this Roman villa and
built what we today call the Getty Villa to emulate that villa and filled it with his
art collection, his rapidly growing art collection. Getty never saw this museum, he, from really
the 1950s on, lived in London and Europe, he was deathly afraid of flying and so he
never came back to the United States, but even though he sent all his art here and had
this amazing building built.
So when he died in 1976 he left this incredible personal fortune, most than $800 million and
there was a big mystery: who's gonna get this money? He basically aliened all of his family
members; he had five ex-wives and five sons, one to each of them, and had kind of fallen
out of touch with all of them and alienated all of them. He had this harem of women who
kind of surrounded him who he always promised to take care of in his will; you saw them
in the first picture. He didn't leave his money to them either.
What he did to the surprise of almost everybody, was he left his entire personal fortune to
the Getty Museum. Overnight the Getty became, went from a very kind of provincial, middling,
regional museum that not a lot of people visited to the richest art museum in the world, a
status that it still has today. Today it's called the Getty Foundation, there's an umbrella
foundation over it, but it has an endowment of about $6 billion so it's the wealthiest
arts organization on the planet.
It was to this organization that this young woman came in 1982. This is Marion True; she
came to the Getty in the early 80s as an Assistant Curator for Antiquities. She had been trained
at Harvard, she was something of a refugee when she came to California; she was leaving
behind a bunch of unsatisfying jobs in the art market on the kind of market side of the
trade. She had not finished her studies yet at Harvard so she was kind of leaving that
behind; she'd had a failed marriage that she was getting away from, so like a lot of people,
she came to California as something of a refugee to start over and she arrived at the Getty
just as it was coming into this enormous wealth. So when Getty died in '76 he bequeathed his
money but it was tied up in litigation until the early 80s. So suddenly in the early 80s,
the Getty is enormously rich and it has really one mission, it's to go out into the world
and to buy the very best art that there is.
Well Marion True was well positioned; she came into the Getty at a time of a lot of
flux, in fact her boss, the Curator of Antiquities at the Getty was a man named Jiri Frel, a
very colorful character. When you read the book, he's kinda my favorite guy in the book,
the guy I'd wanna have a beer with in the book, 'cause he was completely corrupt but
very up front about it. He was one of the very few people in this world that was not
kind of two-faced about what he was doing; he was just basically blatantly corrupt.
Well, he was driven out of the Getty after a tax fraud scheme was revealed, that he'd
been defrauding the Federal Government through kited appraisals and phony donations. So when
he was driven out, Marion True was suddenly elevated to the position of Antiquities Curator.
And it was not long after this, in 1987, that she went to London on her first buying trip
and she was going out to find the best ancient art in the world and buy it. Well, the first
people that she went to visit were these two gentlemen. On the right you see Robin Symes,
on the left is Christo Michaelides.
In the 1980s, these men were the very tippy top of the market in ancient art; they were
dealers of antiquities; they had the very best stuff out there. And so good in fact
that very few museums, American museums, could afford to buy from them; most of their clients
were private collectors. Well, the Getty could afford to buy from them and so this is who
she went to visit.
Robin Symes said to Marion, "Thank you so much for coming. I have something very important
that I wanna show you." And they popped into his maroon Bentley and drove out of London
into this kind of warehouse neighborhood of Battersea and he took her to this big warehouse,
this kind of run down area of town, and he opened up the door and turned on the lights
and this is what Marion True saw: it was a seven and a half foot Cult Statute of a Goddess.
She had her breath taken away when she saw this; nothing like this existed anywhere else
in the world.
This is an acrolithic statute which means that it's made of two different materials;
you'll see that the head and the arms are made out of a white marble, that's Parian
Marble from the Green island of Paros; it's one of the finest marbles there is. The body
is made of limestone. This was a cult goddess that would have sat at the center of a Greek
temple as the object of veneration for likely Greek settlers in the kind of outskirts outside
of Greece.
She knew from the fact that it was an acrolith that it was almost certainly from southern
Italy. This technique was used when there was a shortage, there was a scarcity, of actual
local marble and so the extremities, the marble for the extremities would be imported from
Greece itself, but in the colonies, in the Greek colonies they would use the local limestone
to carve the actual body.
Well, she knew three things when she saw this statute. First of all, she knew that this
was an incredibly important piece of art. As I said there was nothing like it anywhere
else in the world; the closest reference she could come up with was the Parthenon Friezes.
When Pheidias had sculpted those sculptures which we sometimes refer to as the Elgin Marbles,
they're now in the British Museum in London; when Pheidias the Greek sculptor had sculpted
these he had developed a new style, a new artistic technique and this goddess was a
direct reflection of that. It was this wet drapery style and so it was a clear reference
right back to what our historians would consider really the apex of Western civilization, the
highest moment of classical Greece that you can come up with.
And so it was enormously important for that as she wrote later in her proposal there was
nothing like this anywhere outside of Athens itself or Great Britain, meaning the Elgin
Marbles in the British Museum.
So it was clear that this kind of acquisition, an object of this caliber, could immediately
put the Getty on the map, make it a credible institution in the eyes of its East Coast
peers, and would be a career making acquisition for a young curator like Marian True.
Well, there were other things that were also immediately clear about the statute. If you
look at these photographs of the statute before restoration you see that before she was cleaned
up she was a little bit dirty. On her face, you can see the encrustation, that's not acne
she has that's actual dirt that's been encrusted there over the centuries. And if you look
at the limestone body of the statute you'll see that there are two prominent break points:
one in the waist and another at the knees.
Now when she walked up to the statute, she ran her finger along those cracks and they
were sharp; they'd been recently made. Ancient statutes with ancient breaks wear down over
time and so they wouldn't be sharp breaks like that. Well, all of these things were
a clear indication that this statute had been recently found and judging by the fact that
it was an acrolith, it must have been found in southern Italy or Sicily and so this bore
all the clear signs of looting. Closer inspection showed that it actually still had dirt in
the folds of the gown.
Now when she asked Robin Symes, "Where did this thing come from?" She was very curious
because it had never been studied before. Art historians and archaeologists and scholars
of classical art are very passionate and very diligent researchers and anything of this
size or proportion even it had been in a private collection would have been known and documented
if it had known to exist. So this thing was completely out of nowhere.
Robin Symes wouldn't say much about where it was from. He said he'd gotten it from a
Swiss supermarket magnate who had had it in his family collection since the 30s. And that
was good enough and fine for Marion True. The decision to acquire it wasn't hers; it
was really her boss's decision. But she knew very well that this thing bore clear signs
of being a recent discovery and therefore it was hot; it was potentially dangerous for
the museum to be involved with.
Well, this created a dilemma and it was not a new dilemma for the Getty. The Getty had
been wrestling with the issue of whether and how to acquire antiquities particularly antiquities
that appeared to have been recently excavated for many years.
The decision really fell to these two men: John Walsh on the left was the Director of
the Getty Museum at the time. He was a very respected curator at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art; his specialty was Dutch art. He was really one of the leading up and coming museum
figures in the country and he had been brought to the Getty to kind of bring seriousness
to the Getty Museum. And his boss was Harold Williams.
Harold Williams was the CEO of the Getty Trust, the umbrella foundation over the museum. Harold
Williams also had a pretty good lineage; he had worked for Carter, he was the Chairman
of the Securities and Exchange Commission; he had been an advisor for many years to Norton
Simon so he had some knowledge of the art world, but really he was a financially credible
person who could manage this enormous endowment; he had been trained as a lawyer.
So John and Harold had been going back and forth for several years over this question
about antiquities, the antiquities collection. The Getty was aggressively trying to build
its collection but it kept running up into this issue, which is a lot of these objects
on the market, in fact Harold Williams had been told 95 percent of the objects on the
market, had been recently excavated. And under not just foreign law but also American law,
knowingly buying something that had been looted from a country that had a patrimony law like
Italy's that said, "Objects in the ground belong to the state," doing that under American
law was a violation of the criminal statutes and could end up getting the Getty into a
lot of trouble. And as an attorney, Harold Williams was keenly aware of this and concerned
about it.
Well, John Walsh was a museum guy and he made the case to Harold, he said, "Look Harold
this has been going on for decades, this is how we buy these things. And yes there's some
risk involved but these cases are almost never proven and furthermore don't we have a moral
obligation to buy these objects? Isn't it really our duty in the world to purchase antiquities
like this even if they've come out of their country illegally? If we don't buy them what
will come of them? If we don't buy them they could end up back in the black market and
we'll never see it again. It could end up in a private collection and it will never
be studied and available for the public to admire. So isn't it our moral duty as a museum,
and a very wealthy museum at that, to buy and conserve and protect and study and make
available for the public just these kind of objects?"
Well, into this mix came the Aphrodite and it really drew this long ongoing debate to
the fore. And thankfully we have an actual record of the conversation that Harold Williams
and John Walsh had in September of 1987 while they're debating this very issue. Now I should
say Walsh and Williams claimed that the conversation I'm gonna tell you about it purely hypothetical.
The Aphrodite was under proposal at the time, it was being considered for acquisition, but
Walsh and Williams would tell you that they were considering a new acquisition policy
for the Getty not the Statute of Aphrodite. So keep that in mind as we read John Walsh's
handwritten notes from the meeting.
"Acquisition policy antiquities." They were creating a special policy just for antiquities.
"Harold Williams: 'We're saying we won't look into the provenance. We know it's stolen.
Symes is a fence. Must we no try?? to find out where it came from? Why not ask Symes?"
Harold Williams is worried; he's worried that buying the Aphrodite is gonna get the Getty
in a lot of trouble. Well, John Walsh says, "Don't worry, Harold. There's no information
about where this thing came from and if we ask Symes and we push him for information
about where it came from, he'll lie to us because that's what dealers do. The dealers
that we are doing business with are liars and fences and we can't trust them, so let's
not ask them."
Well, it became clear that the Getty, if it was going to acquire the Aphrodite, needed
a new acquisition policy. The existing acquisition policy in 1987 said that the Getty museum
wouldn't be able to buy anything if it had any reason to believe it has been illegally
exported from its country of origin. If there were any doubts about it those doubts needed
to be investigated thoroughly.
Well, investigating the Statute of Aphrodite thoroughly would only bring trouble and so
they created a new policy, one that would allow for the acquisition of the Statute of
Aphrodite. This policy would basically put the onus of proving that the statute was looted
not on the Getty Museum but on someone else, anyone else.
And so what the Getty did is they said, "We're gonna notify foreign governments in the likely
country of origin. We're gonna say, 'Do have any proof that the statue was looted, speak
now or we're gonna buy this thing.'" They would also get a warranty from the dealer
Symes saying that he warranted that this wasn't looted and they would publish and display
the object and let everybody see it and so if anybody had a claim against it they could
come forward and the Getty said, "Well, if they come forward, we'll deal with 'em when
they come forward."
Well, this is the new policy, there was one more aspect of the new policy and it's written
in black and white in these discussions: "No investigations." The Getty made a concerted
effort not to look into where the objects it was buying came from. The reason for that
is pretty clear; at the time, American law said that if you have knowledge of buying
a looted antiquity you could go to jail. So the decision at the Getty was to never gain
that knowledge and absent that knowledge they thought they'd be safe. [clears throat]
Well, Harold Williams was a lawyer and he wasn't entirely comfortable with this still
so he leaves John Walsh and Marion True with a parting thought. He says, "Are we willing
to buy stolen property for some higher aim?"
Well, to me this is a remarkable document because of its frankness and also because
it really captures a moment in time in the American museum world. American museums had
been buying recently looted antiquities with knowledge for decades. And this is really
one of the few times where, because of changing tides in this world, senior museum officials
were saying, "Can we keep doing this and get away with it?" Well, the answer to Harold
Williams question, "Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?" the
answer was yes. The Getty bought the Statute of Aphrodite for $18 million, it was a record
price at the time and American museums kept buying looted antiquities really for the next
few decades. [clears throat]
Buying ancient art, buying other people's culture is really nothing new this has been
going on for centuries if not millennia. The earliest known legal document we have, clears
throat] excuse me, is called the Abbott Papyrus; it's the trial of two looters in Egypt about
2,000 years before Christ. I may have that number wrong. It documents their attempts
to raid the tombs of the Pharaohs; it's not in Egypt by the way it's in the British Museum.
For centuries, people have been debating the propriety of acquiring other people's culture
and for the most part, the rule has been "might makes right." When a country conquers another
country is hauls home the best art and puts it up on display at home.
This has been the subject of dispute and debate for centuries. The most prominent example,
the one you're probably all familiar with, is the debate over the Elgin Marbles when
Lord Elgin went and took those Parthenon Friezes off the Parthenon and brought them home to
London. There was a big debate in London about whether he had done something right or wrong.
A lot of the British aristocracy had been doing very similar things. As part of their
grand tour, they'd go around the world and bring home beautiful remnants of antiquity,
but even for members of the aristocracy in Britain at the time this was kind of a bit
too far; he had gone a bit overboard.
The debate really changes, that historical debate, really begins to change in the 1960s
because what becomes very clear is, particularly in the United States in the post-war boom
years, regional museums across the United are buying up antiquities, ancient antiquities,
in particular classical antiquities at a huge rate; they're gobbling up everything they
can get and filling their collections with these remnants of Roman and Greek culture.
Well, the archaeologists in the field saw the results of this pillage not just in the
classical world but also all across Latin America, across Asia, across the Middle East;
archaeological sites were being devastated by the looting. There was a huge demand for
these objects and it had created a huge problem with plunder. And so this kind of culminated
in a treaty in 1970 that we refer to as the UNESCO Accord. It has a very long name which
I have given you here.
In essence what it said is, "We, the world's nations, are going to try to respect each
other's patrimony laws and to discourage looting to kind of curb this terrible destruction
that's going on. We're going to agree to respect each other's laws. And so if we think that
that object was looted we're going to put import restrictions on it and not allow it
into the country." And there was this kind of international regime that would be built
to kind of curb this destruction of our history.
Well, it was all fine and good, the museums said they were on board, they loved this,
too, of course. And Thomas Hoving, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art got up and
he pronounced, "The age of piracy has ended. This is it. We're changin' the way we do business."
Well, two years later Thomas Hoving and the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought this. This
is known as the Euphronios Krater, it's perhaps one of the finest ancient Greek vases that
we have. It had been looted just a few years earlier from a tomb outside of Rome, smuggled
through a network of dealers, and presented to the Met. And the Met had a pretty good
idea, Thomas Hoving himself had a pretty good idea, that this thing was a fresh find but
he couldn't turn it down, it was too nice, it was just too good and the Met wanted it;
so he bought it.
And there was a big outcry and there were rumors that it had been looted and people
thought they knew the guys who had looted it, but the Met stood by its guns and said,
"Well, unless you can prove it we're not giving it back." And nobody could really prove it
'cause the Italians didn't have the evidence to prove it. So eventually the kerfuffle died
down and the Met kept its vase and it became known as the Hot Pot.
This is Norton Simon in a wonderful quote from the New York Times just to capture the
spirit of the times this is all post-UNESCO, here's Norton Simon, "Hell yes," he's just
bought an enormous, beautiful Indian Vishnu and he's got it and somebody says, "Well,
India says this thing was recently looted and smuggled out of the country." And Norton
Simon says, "Hell yes, it was smuggled. I spent between $15 and $16 million in the last
two years on Asian art, and most of it was smuggled." So not exactly a secret, this is
business as usual in the museum world.
Well, that continues apace really for 40 years and I would argue, and over those 40 years
there's changes in the law, there's changes in practice, there's lot of changes that go
on, but I would argue that this single photo is really what changed the actual practices
not the rhetoric but the actual collecting practices of American museums more than anything
This is a 2006 photograph of Marion True, who you saw earlier, walking into her criminal
trial in Rome. She was accused by Italy of trafficking in looted art with some of the
other dealers who were implicated. So it was really this that got museums to pay attention
after 40 years.
The origin of this criminal case really goes back to the early 1990s and a car crash. A
low level middleman in the illicit antiquities trade in Italy crashes his car, dies, the
police find some artifacts in the car, they go back to his house and they find this document.
This document is a org chart for the illicit antiquities trade in Italy. What you see at
the bottom of the org chart is Elio and Angelo and Dino and the different men at the bottom
of the food chain; these are the guys out in the fields digging; they're feeding their
wares up to the principal middleman in Italy. On the right you see Giacomo Medici. Giacomo
Medici was a young man who grew up in this trade and was the bright guy who made good
for himself, moved the operation to Switzerland, got a big warehouse in the Freeport, and started
becoming a huge supplier to American museums. So he really controlled the illicit trade
really from kind of Rome north, particularly the Etruscan areas just around Rome and Tuscany.
On the left you see Gianfranco Becchina. Gianfranco Becchina was a Sicilian guy, same kinda story,
got his start in the trade but kinda figured out how to make good money out of it, moved
his operation to Switzerland where the laws protected him, and became a major supplier
for objects again to the American museums and others.
At the top of the pyramid is Robert Hecht. Robert Hecht was an American, he was a classically
trained archaeologist at the American Academy in Rome but decided to go to the dark side;
he opted to get involved in the trade as a dealer instead of being a dirt archaeologist.
Hecht really since the 50s had dominated the illicit trade in classical antiquities; he's
an amazing man, I got to know him pretty well while reporting this book and he just died
three days ago.
In fact, my obit of him was in the Los Angeles Times and I think is in the Washington Post
today. He's a remarkable figure, somebody should make a movie about him. I won't go
into a lot of detail today, but he basically helped organize, systematize, and revolutionize
the illicit antiquities trade over five decades and supplied most of the leading museums in
the world with many of their finest classical antiquities that we have.
Once the Italians had that org chart they said, "Okay, now we've got something to go
on; now we've got some teeth for our investigations." They'd been investigating this world for years
and not been able to really get up the chain of commands to the big guys, the middlemen
'cause they were all just across the border in Switzerland.
Well, they finally built enough evidence to convince the Swiss that they could execute
a search warrant in Switzerland, something that a lot of people in the field thought
would have never happened. So they get to Switzerland and they raid Giacomo Medici's
warehouse in 1995 and what do they find? It's Ali Baba's cave. Giacomo Medici has thousands
of antiquities all over the place in various states of restoration; some are in crates
labeled Cerveteri, the little town outside of Rome that's got a beautiful Etruscan necropolis;
these things had just come out of the ground and were shipped to Switzerland just like
that, still in pieces, covered in dirt. Others were kind of partially reconstructed and then
there were the things on the shelf which are kind of display quality, ready for market,
cleaned up, ready to go.
Well, the Italians were stunned, they really, until this moment, had no idea how sophisticated,
organized, and massive the illicit antiquities trade was. I mean, this was a sophisticated
operation. They noticed, by the way, that a lot of the objects on the shelves curiously
had auction tags on them; Sotheby's, Christie's, lot number 332.
Well, how could that be? This took 'em years to figure out, they couldn't figure out how
Medici, a guy who had all the sources across Italy, why would he be buying objects at auction?
Well, eventually they figured out, this is kind of a side story, eventually they figured
out that Medici had figured out how to game the market; he was a bright guy.
He was consigning objects for auction at Sotheby's and then having straw buyers in the crowd
bid them up to the price, the market price, that he felt was right. Then they would buy
them and give him back to Medici. Well, what did that do? A, it set the market for antiquities,
he could basically decide what objects would be worth, and B, it laundered them, it gave
them a clean provenance 'cause at the time anybody would feel comfortable buying from
a reputable auction house like Sotheby's and having an auction tag from Sotheby's was good
enough for anybody.
So, these were bright guys, they had figured out how to game the system, but far more important
than the thousands of archaeological objects they found in his warehouse were these binders
of Polaroids. Medici was not a big record keeper, he didn't have elaborate business
records, what he did was he had Polaroids. He had photographs of everything he'd ever
bought from the looters and sold on and he had a very primitive code that he wrote on
the back of them basically indicating what he'd paid for it, what he'd sold it for, and
who he'd sold it to.
So, it was these Polaroids that really cracked the case for the Italian investigators. They
began going through these Polaroids and finding all kinds of really amazing archaeological
objects that had been recently looted; tens of thousands of them. Well, whadda you do?
You know these objects were looted. For the first time Italians had something they'd always
been missing which was kind of smoking gun proof of where these things had come from.
What they needed to do at this point was find out where these things had ended up.
Well, it took 'em a long time, I'll describe the process 'cause I'm gonna come back to
this at the end of the presentation when I solicit your help. Essentially, imagine a
giant game of Concentration, you remember that game Concentration? You turn over one
card, you look at it, you turn it back over, you turn over another card, and you're trying
to make matches. So these two wonderful Italian investigators were sitting in the basement
of the Villa Giulia, the Etruscan Museum in Rome playing an enormous game of Concentration.
In one pile, they had Medici's Polaroids and they'd look at 'em and they'd study them and
they'd say, "Okay, I got those in my mind." And then they'd open up catalogs of the world's
known antiquities collections and they'd leaf through them and they'd say, "Gee whiz, that
looks familiar. Now where was that?" Then they'd go back into the, well, this is a tedious,
incredibly time consuming process. They spent 10 or 15 years doing this and they came up
with a few hundred matches. And those matches is what ultimately led to the controversy,
the turning point that we write about in the book.
The reason is because this is the Getty's Apollo, this is a statute of Apollo that's
been on display at the Getty and here is the Apollo soon after it came out of the ground.
You can see the power of these images; when you see something recently excavated from
the ground there's not a lot the Getty can say to argue that this thing was in some old
Swiss collection. This thing had been recently excavated, photographed in a Polaroid so they
didn't have to take it to the Photomat and send out through the supply chain to Switzerland,
laundered, and then sold to the Getty.
So these images had an enormous power to them. This is Griffins Attacking a Fallen Doe, a
fabulous, enormous sculpture, you can see that it still has traces of its original paint.
The archaeologists in the crowd know that what we think of as these beautiful white
marbles in their day were actually vividly painted with bright colors and so very little
of that paint has survived antiquity. On this thing, you can really get a sense for what
these things must have looked like when they were made, really vividly painted.
Well, here is the Griffins Attacking a Fallen Doe in the trunk of a car just after it was
excavated. And here it is sitting on a piece of newspaper which when you zoom in you can
tell it's an Italian piece of newspaper. And here is Giacomo Medici, the man who supplied
this to Robert Hecht who supplied this to the Getty Museum, I'm sorry who supplied this
to Maurice Tempelsman, a private collector, a paramour of Jackie Onassis, diamond magnate
in New York City. He put it in his private collection, held it for a few years, sold
it to the Getty where it went on display.
Well, Medici was so excited, this was really a beautiful object, that Giacomo and Robert
Hecht went on a tour of American museums and they visited and they took photographs of
themselves next to the objects that they'd help to smuggle out of the country and loot.
So, thanks to Giacomo's vanity we have the wonderful pictures of Giacomo posing next
to these looted objects.
This is an Etruscan Antefix, this is a roof decoration from an Etruscan house and here's
the Antefix soon after it came out of the ground.
So the Getty Museum in 2005, is confronted by Italian authorities with this shocking
evidence and they're forced to do something that they'd been reluctant to do for years;
they had to look into their own archives and examine their own past and confront their
history of buying these objects. And what they found was pretty alarming. They found
that in their, in the conclusions in their own internal attorneys, that the museum had
apparently been knowingly buying looted antiquities for decades, that this was a rather common
practice, and that is was done with a wink and a nod, that there was an attempt to kind
of cover it up or at least obscure it, but essentially that this was common practice.
Well, on April Fool's Day of 2005 Marion True was indicted by Italy and accused of being
a co-conspirator of Hecht and Medici and trafficking in these objects. There was a human cry in
the art world because Marion True, really since the mid-90s, had emerged as the leading
opponent, the leading critic of the antiquities trade. She had been denouncing really the
trade for its corruption and saying, encouraging her museum colleagues to stop relying on what
was clearly a black market and that we all needed to face the facts. She told museum
directors in 2001 in Denver, "We all need to face the fact if an object comes to us
without a known collecting history, that's a looted antiquity and we shouldn't be buying
it 'cause we're encouraging the destruction of archaeological sites as museums or educational
institutions if we promote the destruction of these things, we're betraying our own mission."
So, when she was indicted she had kind of become transformed in the mind of her peers
as a kind of a leading crusader against this thing, but her past had caught up with her
and so she was indicted and put on trial in 2005 along with Hecht and Medici. Medici was
convicted. Both Hecht and True, their trials just expired; True's in 2010, Hecht's just
a month ago without any conviction.
It's noteworthy because the Italian criminal justice system is not well prepared to handle
these type of cases; they're incredibly complex investigations. The investigative phase of
this spanned at least 15 years and amassed an enormous amount of evidence but it was
not enough to ultimately convict people, who I think the evidence would suggest, were involved
in this illicit trade.
So the Getty based on its own internal investigation created its own org chart. This is what their
internal review came up with in terms of the supply chain that they had been dealing with.
At the bottom you see Italy, interesting that most of these things come to them with some
cover story about being in an old Swiss collection; they clearly thought these things were coming
right out of Italy. You see Robin Symes, Robert Hecht, Fleischman is Larry Fleischman, a prominent
New York art dealer who had donated his collection to the Getty and Tempelsman, Maurice Tempelsman,
who we'd mentioned earlier. And then these things going to the Getty.
Well, this looks a lot like this other org chart; in fact, if you put these two org charts
together what you see is the full chain of custody essentially of the illicit antiquities
trade. You have from the very guys out in the fields digging all the way up through
the system, through the private collectors to the museum. This is really a revolution,
this is really the first time that investigators were able to trace a massive amount of objects
through an illicit black market, this illicit black market. And so this is an important
discovery, it's an important understanding about how sophisticated the supply chain in
this antiquities, in these looted antiquities became.
As I said, Marion True was indicted in April Fool's Day of 2005; she was never convicted;
her trial ended in the fall of 2010 when the statute of limitations expired and so now
she's living with her husband outside of Paris. But she was disgraced in part because, in
stories in the Los Angeles Times, we revealed not only the evidence in the Italian case,
but also the internal evidence inside the Getty, which the Getty decided not to share
with the Italians, though they were promising their full cooperation. So there was a cover
up that happens, we saw some of the documents that were covered up including those notes
from Walsh that clearly indicated there had been a problem. These headlines ultimately
created a big international controversy.
We also found that Marion True had accepted a personal loan from a lawyer associated with
Symes and Michaelides to buy a $400,000 Greek vacation home; she had repaid that loan ultimately
with a second loan from the Fleischman's, the Getty's biggest donors who she'd been
cultivating for years. That second loan came just days after the Fleischman's completed
a $60 million transaction with the Getty. So it all looked very bad, it was a very clear
conflict of interest that Marion True was caught in. She was fired after we revealed
that, even though the Getty had known about it for years.
And it wasn't just the Getty, I want it to be clear through these headlines that what
the Getty had been doing was really a case study in American museums in the 70s, 80s,
and 90s. The Metropolitan Museum was forced to give back many of its objects including
the Euphronios Krater that you saw earlier. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, this is the
Statue of Sabina that had been a really keystone of their collection; it went back. This is
the Euphronios Krater back in Italy now with the Carabinieri celebrating its return. And
here is the Statute of Aphrodite; never shown in the Medici Polaroids, but through really
shoe leather detective work by Italian investigators, by Getty's own investigators, and by journalists
we were able to piece together the kind of story of how this thing had been looted from
an archaeological site in central Sicily, a site called Morgantina, a very important
Greek city state, smuggled in a carrot truck out of the country to Switzerland, laundered,
and then sold to the Getty.
The Getty, by the way, has photographs of the Aphrodite in this kind of very disturbing
state just after it arrived in Switzerland; it's kind of being poured out of a bag with
all kinds of dirt and it's broken in pieces, it's before restoration. They refused to release
these photographs and when we keep demanding them and they keep saying, "No." Remember
these are institutions presumably here to serve the public, I mean they're tax exempt,
they're getting a big tax break on that $6 billion to serve us, but they won't show us
the smoking gun picture of the Aphrodite they say because they cut a deal with the [chuckles]
smuggler who gave them the photos.
So here's the Aphrodite being mounted in its new museum in central Sicily, Morgantina.
And here she is at a big press conference with a crush of Italian politicians and journalists
admiring the statue in her new home.
In all, the effect of the scandal, this needs updating because there's been a number of
recent returns, but essentially you've got American museums returning more than 100 of
their finest pieces of classical antiquities when confronted with this really clear evidence,
just from the Medici archive remember, of the looted origins of these things, these
objects were estimated at a billion dollars; they really are some of the finest pieces
of classical art that we had in America and they're no longer here.
Now, having mixed feelings about that I think is understandable; Italy has its fair share
of classical antiquities, it certainly doesn't need our stuff. But think about it, I think
about this as kind of a token penance; this is really the tip of an iceberg, it's a very
large iceberg. Most classical antiquities in American museums do not have a documented
provenance, meaning we have no idea where they were found or how they got to those museums.
That's alarming; it's a suggestion that they may have illicit origins. This is just a hundred
of them so it's, in my mind, these returns were really a token penance saying, "Yes,
we got caught cheating and we're giving you back some of these finest things as kind of
a way of saying we're sorry."
The byproduct of this has actually been somewhat of a happy story; there's a happy ending which
is that as a result of this really contentious battle between Italy and American museums,
there's been this whole new era of cooperation that's come out of it and oddly enough the
Getty has really been a pioneer in this area.
Here is James Cuno, the new CEO of the Getty, shaking hands with the Greek Minister of Culture
just earlier this year, I'm sorry, late last year. This is them sealing a cultural collaboration
agreement and essentially, and other museums that have given back antiquities have signed
similar agreements. In essence they're saying, "Look Italy, Greece you have tons of antiquities,
more than you could ever display in your museums. We wanna display antiquities, we wanna educate
our public, we wanna display them and we're gonna stop relying on the black market. So,
if you share your antiquities with us and send 'em to us on loan, we'll stop relying
on the black market and we can help you restore them and protect them and study them and there's
really a way for us to all get along."
Well, this new approach is, I think, spreading rapidly and I think it's being seen as a kind
of a paradigm shift in the museum world not just in the antiquities world, but I think
people are realizing: do museums really need to own all the objects that they display?
Is it really about possession or is it about stewardship? And is it about sharing these
things and protecting them and learning about them and collaborating? And so that's a really
positive sign that's come out of this controversy and one that I think you'll see more and more
There are also some alarming signs; there's recent signs that the museum world's reliance
on the illicit antiquities trade has not ended. Very briefly, if you wanna follow these cases
we track them on our blog, we break news on our blog, chasing Aphrodite dot com is where
you can follow the kind of ongoing chase. But these are some recent cases that we've
been writing about.
On the left is Michael Padgett, Antiquities Curator at the Princeton Museum of Art. The
Princeton Museum of Art was one of the museums that gave stuff back in 2007; they signed
an agreement; they made happy noises with Italy, everything was fine. Well, a few years
later we learned that the Italians are now criminally investigating Michael Padgett for
participating in a network of illicit antiquities that looks a lot like the one that Marion
True was involved in. And that this alleged conspiracy to traffic in these objects continued
through 2006 when everybody was making happy noises.
In the middle, is Michael Govan the curator at LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of
Art. They have a wonderful collection of Southeast Asian antiquities. Michael Govan is asking
federal agents whether he can come into his museum because they showed up early one morning
in January of 2008, raided the museum and four other southern California museums after
a five year undercover investigation of an illicit antiquities network smuggling Southeast
Asian antiquities out of Thailand and Burma and Cambodia through Los Angeles. They were
being donated to museums like LACMA at inflated appraisals. This is a tax fraud scheme that
echoes the very one that got Marion True's boss fired in the 80s at the Getty, and it
appears to still be going on. No charges, certainly not against the museum in this case
yet, it's an ongoing investigation.
On the right you see Joseph Lewis, a collector of Egyptian material here in the United States.
He was arrested or indicted under an alleged conspiracy to traffic near Eastern material
recently looted Egyptian antiquities, smuggled through Bahrain into New York City where they
were distributed to collectors and dealers and being sold on the open market in New York.
So this is still going. The age of piracy unfortunately is not yet over, it's an ongoing
So that's the end of my chat. I apologize for my quick pace but I'm trying to get through
it so I can pick your brains about what I see as a potential use of technology to address
some of these issues. So let me talk about that briefly.
In essence, is that still, no it's not, apologies.
While reporting this story, we came across what I see as a problem. There are these thousands
and thousands of photographs of recently looted antiquities that have been seized by Italian
authorities and Greek authorities. It's an enormously time consuming and difficult task
for these wonderful archaeologists in the basement of the Rome Museum to find out where
these things ended up. And so, in the course of reporting, we got access to many of these
photographs, we have them on five DVDs full of photos and documents and business records
of this illicit trade and is there way to process this information, this data, more
effectively, more efficiently?
The other problem is that our knowledge of the illicit antiquities trade is really rather
poor because of this lack of data. There's a real, even among experts, uncertainty about
how big, what the scope of the illicit market in classical antiquities is; estimates range
from $200 million a year to $6 billion a year and everybody's just guessing 'cause like
most illicit trades, it's pretty hard to measure.
Well these investigations that have been happening in recent years have churned up an enormous
source of data about this illicit trade: business records, photographs. All of this data is
being processed at a snail's pace by a handful of people. We have an opportunity to change
that and so what I am trying to do and need some help with is essentially crowd source
the task of analysis of this information; make it public on the Web and get everyone
out there who has an idea about this stuff to contribute to our understanding of what
happens. It's a project that I refer to half jokingly as WikiLoot mostly because it's a,
I think of it as a Wiki, a distributed analysis process and a community effort to contribute.
What I'd like to do is create a Web interface that would build a community of people who
will go through these images, tag them, identify them, find out where they are today, and further
our understanding of how the illicit trade works and the scope of the problem.
A more sophisticated approach and one I've talked about with some people at Google but
have yet to find kind of the right person, is to use computer vision as a potential technical
way of having essentially a Web crawler go out into the world and find where these objects
are today. We all know that Picasa for example and iPhoto in Apple's iPhoto they have this
facial recognition technology that lets you find all the pictures of your Aunt Sally.
Can that technology be harnessed to recognize a specific piece of art and go out into the
World Wide Web and find where that art is today? That would dramatically increase our
ability to understand the scope of this problem.
This is something that I've been discussing with a kind of small group of archaeologists,
people in law enforcement, journalists, there's a lot of interest in this. What we don't have
is a technology partner, somebody who could help us develop this technology. And so one
of the reasons I'm here today is I'm excited to be at Google is because, not surprisingly,
this is something you guys are already doing in lots of different ways.
You had a question in the back.
>>male #1: Who have you spoken to at Google so far?
>>Jason Felch: To Eric Limon and, well I can get you their names. Both gentlemen I ran
into and aren't in this field per se but they've been, I've been kind of pitching this is a
20 percent time project through them and we haven't quite found yet the right people to
connect with. So I'm still --
>>male #1: I know the group, so let's met afterwards.
>>Jason Felch: Wonderful, great. I'm glad you're here. Problem solved, right?
Okay, next problem.
No, there's a lot of interested people in this, this is an important cache of data that
could really tell us a lot about this world and my vision for it is that it be something
that it's wide open to the public. I mean, I think, one of the problems is law enforcement
isn't quite the right way to address this issue and academics are very good at what
they do, but there's a gap there between them and the public.
And the public essentially is not, doesn't completely understand the scope of the problem
and, I think, particularly in the United States there's a sense that looting is victim-less
crime because we don't see the devastation of the archaeological sites, they're not for
the most part here.
And so I think public awareness is a big part of this and I'd there to be a way in which
the public could engage in this potentially by, for example, going to their local museum,
looking at these lovely antiquities that have no provenance, snapping a picture and uploading
it onto WikiLoot and allowing either experts or an algorithm to see if it matches any of
the objects in the archives. This is something that I think could really raise public awareness
about this issue and help get out heads around the scope of the illicit antiquities trade.
I'm gonna end with that, it's just a brief overview of kind of something I hope to do.
I'd welcome all of your questions; I'd also welcome your suggestions. You know technology
far better than I do. Are there other ways in which technology could be brought to bear?
I'll throw one out there because I was asked to: a lot of field archaeologists and governments
in antiquities rich countries that have troubles monitoring their archaeological sites rely
on Google Earth and Google Maps for their images. Essentially they're desperate to monitor
their archaeological sites but they're frustrated because the pace at which Google Images is
being updated, these great satellite views of archaeological sites could be harnessed
to track looting and kind of monitor archaeological sites at risk, but they can't quite get a
handle on how to get the most recent updates. I think the answer may be to buy the satellite
images from the for profit providers but there's not always money for that. So that's another
way that Google might play a role in the illicit antiquities trade.
Thank you so much for your patience, I know I kind of rambled through that quickly so
I'm happy to take any questions or comments or thoughts.
Anybody have any thoughts?
>>male #2: I'm just interested in your last comment there about the amount of money involved.
Museums always seem to be struggling for money --
>>Jason Felch: Yeah.
>>male #2: and yet --
>>Jason Felch: Not the Getty.
>>male #2: the amount that these things are being bought for and the amount of trade seems,
it seems like a disconnect like they're always short of money and yet they're spending $20
million on a --
>>Jason Felch: Particularly when you think that you could get some of these incredible
objects on loan, for almost free, why would museums be going out and spending $18 million
on something that could get them into a lot of legal trouble? I think that the hard times
that everyone's been having in the last couple years with the recession have encouraged museums
to move in this direction and think beyond ownership in part because ownership, they
can't buy what they want always. And so are there other ways to get it? But I think you
make a good point. Do you wanna say a little bit about your work 'cause it sounds like
you have related ideas.
>>male #2: No, just the idea of doing computer vision and matching pictures either user generated
with images that are on the Web is something we do so --
>>Jason Felch: Yeah.
>>male #2: I mean, these DVDs you talk of, they're just all images?
>>Jason Felch: No a lot of them are images and I should say a lot of them are poor images,
they are essentially digital photographs of Polaroids and so they're not all very good
images and a lot of times, I mean this is a challenging task for computer vision which
I know is kind of quickly evolving. But a lot of times you've got objects that are in
various states of restoration or partial objects that are later, when we see them at their
museum they look pretty nice, but in some of these Polaroids they look kinda dirty or
broken up. So I don't know where the cutting edge of the technology is and it's abilities
to kind recognize a fragment and associate it with something existing out there.
But let's talk more after. Yeah.
>>female #1: Hi [ indistinct ] one of the Stanford archaeologists. So I like your idea
of crowd sourcing using these images to identify objects that museums have acquired but it
seems to me like you're trying to circumvent the hierarchy of the museums. Have you approached
museums directly or talked to them 'cause it seems like you're working under an assumption
that museums are still not functioning ethically in terms of trying to identify --
>>Jason Felch: I am an investigative reporter after all.
trying to identify looted antiquities --
>>Jason Felch: Yes.
>>female #1: within their own [indistinct ].
>>Jason Felch: Yeah. Fair point, I am somewhat suspicious of whether museums have completely
embraced the wave of reforms, I think it's a mixed bag. We test this theory almost weekly.
If you follow our blog chasing Aphrodite dot com what you'll see is that we are continuing
to chase these cases as they emerge.
So the Princeton case which is the one that's kind of hot right now involves a dealer named
Edoardo Almagia and there's a cache of photos; we don't have them the Italian authorities,
this is a case that's kind of ongoing. But they've linked these photos to museums around
the country so we've been contacting these museums and saying, "Would you please tell
us what you bought from this gentlemen and what you know about its origins?" And there's
different degrees of transparency, I mean it would be nice to think that museums were
all completely transparent 'cause they see themselves as public institutions here for
our benefit, that's not always the case particularly when there's a criminal investigation going
So, I think museums could play a very active and important role in this. After all some
of the leading experts, some of the people who know how to identify these objects better
than anyone else, work at museums. I mean, who better than museum curators to go onto
this Web portal and help identify and tag and locate where these objects are? I mean
when Marion True in her deposition by the Italian prosecutor was shown a lot of these
Polaroids, off the top of her head she could say, "Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe
Museum, Cleveland." I mean, she just knew 'cause this is her field.
So I would hope that museums could be encouraged to participate in this, I think that even
people in the dealers' community have a real interest in having this information out there
to know what their exposure is on the market. Right now the situation is everybody knows
there's thousands of Polaroids out there but not which objects are in them and so there's
a lot of fear and nervousness. And my hope is that everybody could kind of join together
on this type of task to kind of wrestle it to the ground.
>>female #2: Following up on the last question, you mentioned how auction houses are often
used to launder items, so have you thought about somewhat involving them in this project
of yours or maybe sending them the photos so that they can watch out for those types
of items if they come up for sale or someone has a [indistinct ] auction house?
>>Jason Felch: Yeah, I mean auction houses, like museums, keenly interested in what these
photos show with the expertise in house to identify many of these objects. And I think
no one has an interest right now in getting caught with looted antiquities. The pain has
been so great over the last couple of years during this controversy, that they're all
interested in kind of not getting caught.
And so the idea of putting it out there on the Web and crowd sourcing, it is that anybody
who is interested in this. I mean there's also some hobbyist in Ohio who happens to
know a lot about this and has hundreds of hours of free time to go through and do this
work. So there's people all around the world who are interested in this and again it's
global, it's not just the United States, there are experts all across the world who know
these things.
I've also heard from archaeologists that the world that I've really been delving deeply
into and the kind of smuggling network that we've been documenting is a pretty small one,
it's classical antiquities from the Mediterranean, mostly Greece and Italy, going through to
classical collections in the United States. This is a worldwide problem and it's one that
involves Southeast Asia, it's one that involves pre-Columbian art, and there are similar types
of archives, I'm told, of objects and of middlemen in the trade from these different communities.
So my idea is build it with what you've got, in this case it's classical, in this particular
smuggling network with classical antiquities, and then if you build it they will come; build
it out as it grows.
It's also because there's some graduate students and academics in the audience, it's a potential
for a fascinating dataset to conduct really serious analysis that I think hasn't really
been done before. I've been trying to review some of the academic work on the issue of
looting and it's pretty sparse 'cause there's just not a good dataset; there's imperfect
ways of analyzing this. This is a fabulous dataset, we've got thousands and thousands
of business records from some middlemen in the trade operating over decades and it would
several great dissertations in there somewhere. So for those academics out there interested
in this there's a little bait.
Anyone else?
Thank you all very much for your patience and for coming today.
I'd be happy to sign a book if you wanna buy one I'll be around.