With its mammoth endowment from an oil tycoon’s fortune, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles has engaged in what the co-authors of this riveting expose call “aggressive buying” of antiquities. Curators of the Getty and other museums recognized the risk that their avidity would encourage looting, but they salved their consciences by emphasizing museums’ capacity to preserve and display artifacts that might otherwise molder in situ. “Ultimately,” Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino explain, “the ethical question comes down to this: will the acquisition of an object do more to destroy the past or preserve it? [Former Getty curator Arthur] Houghton argued that buying antiquities — even those that have been recently looted — does greater good than harm.”

A cop named Fausto Guarnieri disagreed. Working for the art squad of the Italian Carabinieri, he took notice when the Getty put on display “a seven-and-a-half-foot statue of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.” With help from local archeologists, he sniffed out a connection between the Getty’s much-ballyhooed acquisition and the looting of a site at Morgantina, Italy, in the late 1970s. By the time a lengthy process of trials and negotiations had ended, the Getty had returned Aphrodite to Italy (although with a new ID — experts now believe she is more likely to be Persephone, the goddess of fertility); and one of the museum’s curators suffered “the destruction of her career and reputation.”

‘Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum’ by Jason Felch & Ralph Frammolino. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 375 pp. $28  (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)