Category Archives: Events

Did Museum Officials Violate US Laws? Houghton on The McClain Doctrine and Crimes of Knowledge

Whenever we talk with Arthur Houghton — the Getty’s former antiquities curator who we’ll be on stage with this Saturday at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore — he asks a provocative question: did he or any other museum official violate U.S. law while buying looted antiquities?

The short answer, of course, is that no museum official at the Getty or elsewhere has been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime under US law. The real question, then, is: might they have?

Here’s an attempt to answer that hypothetical, using Houghton’s own writings while at the Getty Museum. As part of our “Hot Docs” series, we’ve annotated and posted transcriptions of the key documents via links below.

The Getty bought the kouros in 1985 for $10 million. Today it is believed to be fake.

Getty officials certainly knew they were buying objects from an antiquities market awash in illicit material. In April 1984, while the J. Paul Getty Museum was considering the acquisition of its infamous statue of a kouros, Houghton told the Getty’s outside counsel: “Probably 95% of antiquities on the market were found in the past three years. The only way one would obtain them was if one did not ask the specific question that would elicit the specific answer about provenance that made the material unbuyable.”

Days later, Houghton elaborated on the risks of acquiring such objects in a memo on the law to museum director John Walsh. Law enforcement authorities had made clear that under their reading of current law, museum officials could be criminally liable for acquiring such objects, Houghton wrote. “No action will be taken against the importer unless it is clear that the importer acted with certain knowledge that the material had been illegally exported from a country which had appropriate national ownership in place. If Customs believes that the importer had such knowledge, they could seek criminal penalties against the importer.”

The criminal law Houghton was referring to was the National Stolen Property Act. In the 1977 case US vs. McClain, a federal appeals court in the 5th Circuit had found that buying antiquities illegally exported from a country with a national patrimony law was equivalent to buying stolen property under US law. US government officials had made clear that this “McClain doctrine” could be applied well beyond the 5th Circuit. In effect, there was no difference between buying a looted antiquity and a hot car. The government could seize the stolen property and criminally charge those who imported it, Houghton wrote.

At the time, the Getty was buying such objects at a breakneck clip. As Houghton wrote a month later to deputy director Deborah Gribbon, “No other department of ancient art has an acquisition program as intense as ours nor one which, if it is to be maintained, requires such frequent contact with market sources.” In fact, the Getty was buying objects far faster that its staff could document them. “Some 30% of the collection has not been photographed, a significant number have no accession number, and there is no file by subject matter or chronological order to help find things,” Houghton wrote.

Harold Williams, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust

Word of the Getty’s potential legal exposure made its way to Harold Williams, the CEO of the Getty Trust and a lawyer who had run the SEC. Williams wrote to Walsh about the troubling rumors he had heard about the antiquities market: “Indeed, much of the conversation is to the effect that 90% of the objects on the market are presumed to have been recently come out of Italy or Greece.” Williams wanted answers, and Walsh punted to his “ethical tutor” Houghton, who was asked to explain how the museum could continue to acquire undocumented antiquities under such conditions.

John Walsh, Getty Museum Director

Houghton’s answer came in the form of another memo, this one entitled “Ethics and the Acquisition of Antiquities.” It lays out the two views on collecting undocumented antiquities: those of archaeologists, who favor restrictions, and those of curators, who feel a “special obligation” to acquire objects. In the end, Houghton concludes that the Getty is justified in the acquisition of undocumented antiquities because it is better prepared that most museums to protect, conserve and display these objects.

But how to navigate the law and the McClain Doctrine, which suggested such acquisitions could violate US law? Houghton’s solution was “optical due diligence.” In essence, the Getty would create the appearance of propriety and high ethical standards while buying what it wanted, being careful to avoid the “certain knowledge” of an object’s illicit origins that could land a museum official in jail.

Cult Statue of a Goddess (Aphrodite)

Houghton resigned from his post in 1986, but his rationale for continuing to collect undocumented antiquities became the basis for the Getty’s new acquisition policy the following year. That policy change allowed the Getty to buy a statue of Aphrodite despite clear signs it had been recently looted from Southern Italy.

Did Getty museum officials have the “certain knowledge” about the Aphrodite required for criminal charges under the McClain Doctrine?

Walsh’s handwritten notes from a meeting with Williams that September would suggest they did: “We know it’s stolen…Symes [the dealer offering the Aphrodite] a fence.”

Today, both men claim the conversation was hypothetical, not about the Aphrodite. Would that defense have held up in criminal court? Thanks to the statute of limitations, we’ll never know.

We look forward to seeing Arthur again on Sat, October 29th at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore. Details are here.

Hot Docs: 

Houghton on the Law

Houghton on Antiquities Ethics

1987 Acquisition Policy

Fall Book Tour: Chasing Aphrodite across the East Coast

Here’s the line up for this week in New York City and beyond. Hope to see you there. To suggest an event near you, please contact us at ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com

October 26th: The National Arts Club in New York City hosts Jason for 6:30pm lecture and book signing. 15 Gramercy Park South. (Members and guests only.)

October 26th: Archaeological Institute of America The Institute’s New York Society will host Ralph for an evening talk about Chasing Aphrodite. Details here.

October 27: Harvard Club of NYC will be hosting us for a lecture, book signing and dinner. (Members only.)

October 28: Beacon Award Dinner. SAFE will host a dinner honoring Jason and Ralph for “their dedication to uncovering the truth” about the role of museums in the illicit antiquities trade. Details here.


October 29: Walters Museum of Art in 
Baltimore. Museum Director Gary Vikan will be moderating a public talk with Ralph, Jason and Arthur Houghton, the former interim Getty antiquities curator and a staunch advocate of collector’s rights. Discussion at 2pm, followed by book signing. Details here.


Chasing Aphrodite events in October: NYC, Philly, Princeton, Rutgers, Baltimore and more

Next month we’ll be heading East for several lectures and book events. Please help us spread the word:

October 17th: Rutgers University. The university’s program in Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies (CHAPS) will host us for a talk about Chasing Aphrodite. Open to the public. Details here.

October 19th: Princeton University. The Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, will host us for a discussion. Open to the public. Details here.

October 20th: University of Pennsylvania will host us for a 12:30 pm lecture at the Penn Museum’s Cultural Heritage Center.

That evening at 6pm, Penn Law and the Museum will host us for a discussion on the illicit trade with Robert Wittman, former head of the FBI’s art squad and author of “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.” Open to the public. Details here and here.

October 24th: New York University. 

NYU’s Department of Classics will be hosting us for an evening chat. Details TBA.

October 25: The National Art Club in New York City hosts us for a lecture and book signing. Details here.

October 26th: Archaeological Institute of America The Institute’s New York Society will host us for an evening talk about Chasing Aphrodite. Details here.

October 27: Harvard Club of NYC will be hosting us for a lecture, book signing and dinner. (Members only.)

October 28: Beacon Award Dinner. SAFE will host a dinner honoring Jason and Ralph for “their dedication to uncovering the truth” about the role of museums and the illicit antiquities trade. Details here.


October 29: Walters Museum of Art in 
Baltimore. Museum Director Gary Vikan will be moderating a public talk with Ralph, Jason and Arthur Houghton, the former interim Getty antiquities curator and a staunch advocate of collector’s rights. Discussion at 2pm, followed by book signing. Details here.

We also have some exciting events in Southern California lined up for November:

November 2: Chapman University. The Department of Art and Chapman Law School will host Jason for an evening lecture and book signing. Details TBA.

November 12: An Insiders Tour of the Getty Villa. Jason will lead a tour of the Getty Villa, discussing the Getty’s origins, the highlights of its controversial antiquities collection and its recent collaboration with Italy. Organized by SAFE Tours. Details TBA.

November 18th: Jonathan Club in LA. (Private event.)

Hope to see you at one of these. To suggest an event near you, please contact us: ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com

Beacon Award for Chasing Aphrodite authors

We’re honored to announce our work has been recognized with a Beacon Award from Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), the non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage worldwide.

In announcing the 2011 award, SAFE cited the authors “for educating the public about how museum practices affect the preservation of cultural heritage. As investigative reporters at the Los Angeles Times, their dedication to uncovering the truth was essential in breaking open the case with the J. Paul Getty Museum. Through their recent book and continued effort to raise awareness online, many will learn, some for the first time, about the devastating effects of the illicit antiquities trade.”

SAFE will be presenting the award at a dinner in New York City on October 28th. You can find details on this and our other upcoming East Coast appearances here.

We’d also like to congratulate the 2012 Beacon Award Winner David Gill, the mind behind Looting Matters and soon to be Head of Humanities and Professor of Archaeological Heritage at University Campus Suffolk. We’ve followed David’s important research closely over the years and his blog is must-read for those interested in the illicit antiquities trade.

Wrestling with Orphans in the Skagit Valley

On this summer’s book tour/family road trip to the Pacific Northwest, Jason spent some time at a family farm in the scenic Skagit Valley. While there, our hosts Drs. David and Jenny Benson organized what has got to be one of the best book parties in recorded history.

The festivities included a jam session by David and his old band; grilled oysters from the nearby Puget Sound; and a delicious Frogmore Stew (aka Low Country Boil) prepared by Liz and Ben Fischer, our friends from North Carolina.

After the feast, Jason spoke a bit about Chasing Aphrodite, then opened the floor for a lively discussion about the problem of the so-called “orphans,” archaeological objects that have been looted and now — thanks to reforms in museum collecting practices — have no home.

The two dozen or so guests — who ranged from farmers and doctors to teachers and artists and film makers — had lots of ideas for solutions to a problem that has perplexed a generation of art world leaders.

Why not make an international museum for these objects? Perhaps a traveling exhibition that tours around the world? Could they be distributed to museums with lesser collections? Ray Bakke, the distinguished author and theologian, spoke eloquently about his insights from years of inter-faith dialogue around the globe.

In these dog days of summer, that lovely afternoon in the Skagit Valley is stuck in our minds. Our thanks to the Bensons for hosting the wonderful event. We’ll be sharing some of these insights as we continue our book tour in the fall with several stops on the East Coast.

Meantime, what do you think should be done with the “orphans”?


Loot at the Seattle Art Museum?

While in Seattle last month for a talk at Elliot Bay Bookstore, I stumbled across an interesting piece in the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection of ancient art: a marble Roman portrait head of the Emperor Claudius.

Why interesting? Here’s the provenance listed for the object: “Robin Symes Ltd.; Seattle Art Museum, Norman and Amelia Davis Collection.” That’s the same Robin Symes who brokered the sale to the Getty of the looted Griffins, Apollo and Lekanis, which the museum returned to Italy in 2007. He was also the dealer who sold the Getty its famous looted statue of Aphrodite, which was returned to Italy last year. (Symes was never indicted by Italian authorities, but his name comes up repeatedly as a key player in their investigation of the looted antiquities trade.)

I asked the Seattle Art Museum for details about the object. What was known about its ownership history? Was the museum concerned about possessing an object from a dealer known to traffic in looted art?

According to museum spokeswoman Cara Egan, the Claudius was acquired in 1993 from Symes. It had not been previously published, and had no known ownership history. (The Norman Davis endowment — named for a prominent Seattle collector of ancient coins — provided the funds for the purchase.)

“We proactively contacted the Italian authorities several times beginning in 2006 to alert them about the Claudius portrait and to research the object’s provenance,” said Egan. “We have not received a response back from them.”

The museum does not have any other objects in its collection known to have come through Symes or the other prominent dealers implicated in the Italian case, Egan said. The SAM continues to actively research the provenance of the piece and welcomes new information.

Egan did not provide any details about that research. We suggest the SAM consider contacting Greek authorities, who raided Symes’ estate on the island on Schinoussa. Among the items seized during the raid were photos of dozens of likely looted objects sold by Symes.

 

Podcast: Chasing Aphrodite at the Commonwealth Club

 

 

The Commonwealth Club has posted a podcast from Jason’s July 12 appearance.

The hour-long conversation with host Anne W. Smith, chair of the Club’s Art Forum, touched on a wide range of issues including the origins of the Getty scandal, political pressure we faced while covering it for the LA Times, and lessons to be learned for non-profits and arts organizations. The lively audience of about 60 had great questions.

You can listen to the podcast here.

 

 

Tuesday in San Francisco: The Commonwealth Club and KQED’s Forum

 

 

 

This Tuesday, Jason will be in San Francisco speaking about American museums and the illicit antiquities trade at The Commonwealth Club, “the nation’s oldest and largest public affairs forum.”

He’ll be in conversation with Anne W. Smith, chair of the Club’s Art Forum and a long-time art professional in San Francisco. She has served as a trustee for the Book Club of California, the Film Arts Foundation, California Lawyers for the Arts and numerous other cultural groups.

“Personally, I found CHASING APHRODITE an extraordinarily detailed, sometimes scary and ultimately fascinating narrative that should command the attention of curators, collectors, policy makers, arts administrators, art historians and museum goers,” Smith wrote in the invitation to the event.

The program starts at 6pm at the Club’s downtown venue on 595 Market Street. Tickets can be purchased at the door, through the reservation line (415) 597- 6705, or in advance here.

Also, tune in to KQED Tuesday morning at 10am to hear Jason live on Michael Krasny’s Forum.

If you can’t make it, both programs will be available as podcasts. We’ll post a link when they become available.

 

Five Tips for Finding Loot at Your Local Museum

Jason and Ralph will be speaking Friday, June 10 in Orlando at IRE, the annual gathering of investigative reporters. Our topic is how to find loot at your local museum.

You don’t have to be an investigative reporter to find looted antiquities. Museums around the country are home to ancient art of questionable origins. As Marion True once told her museum colleagues: “Experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely — if not certain — that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.” (p. 190 of Chasing Aphrodite)

So, in that spirit, here are five things to look for at your local museum:

1. The Usual Suspects:For decades, the market in Classical antiquities

Robert Hecht poses in front of the famous looted Greek vase he sold the museum in 1972 for $1 million.

was controlled by a handful of shady dealers who operated much like a cartel. They were competitors, but cooperated as necessary to get the highest price for their wares. Look for their names in the ownership histories of ancient art: Robert Hecht, Frieda Tchakos, Fritz Burki, Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, Christo Michaelidis.

2. Read the Labels: Many museums are frustratingly vague about an object’s origins. In the language displayed next to a piece of ancient art, you’ll find see something like “said to be from” this or that country or region. The question to ask is: who said? The answer is often dealers, middlemen and even looters. Curators often sought out this important information from their market sources, but kept it vague to hide an object’s illicit origins.

3. Accession numbers: Most museum objects are identified by an accession number, the inventory number given to an object when it enters the collection. Every museum uses a different code for their acquisitions, but they usually contain the date of acquisition. For example, the Getty’s statue of Aphrodite was 88.AA.76. “88” is for 1988, the year the Getty acquired the statue. “AA” is the Getty’s code for ancient statues. “76” tells you its the 76th acquisition of the year. This can be key information. For example, if you know the year an object was acquired, you can figure out the standards and policies that were in place at the time.

4. Scrutinize the donors. Museums have been getting in trouble for donations for decades. Donations of art are tax deductible, and have often been a means for tax fraud at museums. Museums have also used donors to launder recently looted art. (See Chap 2: A Perfect Scheme) Some museums have lower standards when it comes to objects donated to the museum.

5. Ask for answers: Once you see an object the sparks your curiosity, ask the museum for answers about the object’s provenance, or ownership history. Most museums should (reluctantly) provide you with what they know. If they claim to have no information, ask them why they felt it was safe to purchase. The AAMD has guidelines for museum transparency on these issues. Is your museums following them?

In our view, not all looted antiquities need be returned to the country from which they were stolen. (The Getty, for example, returned only a fraction of the hundreds of objects in their collection its former curator would consider “almost certainly looted.”) But museums should be asked to come clean about their collecting practices.

Joining us on Friday’s panel will be Lee Rosenbaum of CultureGrrl fame, and James Grimaldi, the WaPo’s lead reporter on the Smithsonian’s shenannigans.

Join us at Book Soup on May 31st

This Tues, May 31st at 7pm, Jason Felch will be reading and signing books at Book Soup, a fabulous bookstore on the Sunset Strip.

Join us! Details and directions here.