Art, True Crime; Continent: North America, Europe

  • A review of two books for a change

In Priceless, authors Robert Wittman and John Shiffman write about the art crimes the general public thinks of: multimillion-dollar theft from museums, galleries and private collections. Chasing Aphrodite authors Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, on the other hand, write about a more pervasive type of crime perpetrated with the full knowledge of collectors and curators: looting antiquities for sale into the art market.

I read these two books on crime in the art world nearly concurrently. They couldn’t be more different, but either one would add depth to your next trip to a museum. Read the first one if you’re not a huge fan of art museums generally but like a good crime story. You can pound through it pretty handily on the trans-Atlantic flight for that vacation with a museum day in the itinerary. Read the second book if you have a more serious interest in art and particularly antiquities.

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Art Treasures by Robert Wittman and John Shiffman

  • It’s like a serialized crime novel, right down to the first-person narrative style
  • 338 pages (258 pages, excluding the Notes and Acknowledgements)

Probably, The Thomas Crown Affair has already popped into your mind just from reading the title of this blog post. However, Robert Wittman, the FBI agent who wrote this book, carefully tells his readers that most of the cases he worked lacked cinematic glamor. That said, however, the stories Wittman and his coauthor like to tell involve his undercover work, right down to the FBI agents in bikinis positioned for a sting on an FBI yacht. Do they have your attention yet? There are also meetings in fancy hotel rooms where everyone is under surveillance, private airplanes and European mob figures. If all the undercover cliches aren’t enough to make you chuckle in mild disbelief and keep reading, then the intra-agency territorial squabbles and blunders might. Reading this book of case stories often feels a bit like having a TV series pitched to you.

All the Hollywood-esque detail aside, these authors wish to impress on the reader that art crimes require different strategy than other major thefts and deserve special training. Wittman points out the primary goal in the sort of investigations he worked was recovery of the artwork – achieved even at the expense of apprehending the criminals who stole it. This approach is very different from most major property crimes. Because arrest and conviction statistics are the measure of a successful agent in the law enforcement sphere, working art crime was not a path to promotion. He’d like to see working art thefts gain more respect and resources in law enforcement.

Chasing Aphrodite: Hunting for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

  • Chasing this famous statue is a paper chase with office drama
  • 397 pages

This narrative isn’t paced for television like Priceless, and much of the interest comes from documentation: emails, memos, etc. However, the type of crime revealed here has more serious and sweeping implications for art collections in the United States. Felch and Frammolino tell the long and involved story of L.A.’s J. Paul Getty Museum, its key management and donors, and its impressive collection of antiquities. For years, the Getty had a of reputation having more money than taste, but in recent decades, its leadership has sought to have the museum taken seriously by the art world.

Building a collection of antiquities – objects from ancient Greece, Rome, Cyprus and other Mediterranean civilizations – can be tricky for American museums. Consider Roman objects. In 1939, Mussolini made it illegal for Italian antiquities of cultural significance to leave the country. That edict covered virtually anything of Roman origin that wasn’t some cheap (and probably counterfeit) bauble for the tourists. Legally, American museums could still purchase antiquities excavated before that year, but not after.

This bright legal line of 1939 is where the idea of provenance becomes especially important. Provenance is the history of ownership and an article’s origin, when and where it was excavated. This crucial bit of history attached to an object tells a potential buyer a lot of things, but most critically, it defines whether or not buying the object is a violation of international law. Seems straightforward enough, except that some dealers fudge or outright lie about provenance, and choosing to look the other way for decades got the Getty into serious legal trouble.

The looted antiquities supply chain looks something like this: villagers in the Italian countryside make a living from digging up vases, statuary and anything else that might be of value from ancient tombs. The best stuff comes out of tombs the archeologists haven’t examined yet, which is where the problem comes in. Looters don’t care about the context in which pieces are found, and they will destroy sites in search of high-value objects. They sell what they find to middlemen, who in turn sell it to dealers. The middlemen and dealers know perfectly well these items have been excavated illegally, so they make up a provenance. The classic story is the Swiss or Austrian seller who has had a particular item in the family for generations, well before 1939. Curators at museums also know this classic story, but the Getty’s curators chose not to question what appeared on documentation for provenance too closely for years.

Chasing Aphrodite offers a detailed narrative of how the questionable or downright illegal practices for acquiring antiquities changed for U.S. museums and collectors. This story is not for the casual reader, as it assumes a preexisting interest in the art world. The lack of dialogue and long discussion of key paper trails (or their absence) makes this book feel sluggish at times – Indiana Jones doesn’t make an appearance, despite the Getty’s proximity to Hollywood. However, the motivated reader stands to learn about a sinister and significant issue for antiquities collections and how it finally came to be taken seriously in the United States.

Image Source: WikiImages, 2013, from This statuary resembles one that is discussed in Chasing Aphrodite, but is not necessarily the same object.

Want to read my favorite art crime story of all time? Check out Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell.


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