|Jason Felch and Tanya Lervik (ARCA Alum)|
by Tanya K. Lervik, ARCA Alum
WASHINGTON DC - Tonight the National Press Club hosted a lively panel discussion on the topic of looted antiquities as exemplified by the J. Paul Getty Museum debacle. The panel, which was moderated by the congenial James Grimaldi, investigative reporter for the Washington Post, featured Jason Felch (in person) and Ralph Frammolino (phoning in from Bangladesh) - the two authors of "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum." The book is the culmination of five years of investigative reporting inspired by a Los Angeles Times series for which Felch and Frammolino were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. They were joined on the panel by Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum and Arthur Houghton, a former curator at the Getty Museum who spoke passionately on behalf of museums.
The discussion covered a wide range of topics – from the basics of international law and the ethical responsibility of museums to the specifics of various transgressions that occurred at the Getty. Felch and Frammolino described the scope of the problem and how they came upon the antiquities story while researching the lavish spending of a Getty executive, Barry Munitz. In the course of their investigation, they were approached by a “Greek chorus of Deep Throats” who informed them that the executive’s indiscretions paled in comparison.
Arthur Houghton commented on his experience at the Getty and recruited members of the audience (including yours truly) to illustrate the donation tax fraud scheme that he discovered was being perpetrated by one-time curator, Jiri Frel. Houghton was instrumental in putting an end to that practice, but he was also the author of the “smoking gun” memo often cited as evidence that the Getty Museum management was aware they were acquiring looted works in contravention of the 1970 UNESCO convention. Houghton also suffered some uncomfortable moments when the conversation turned to his role as the originator of the Getty’s controversial policy of “optical due diligence” wherein they would generally accept an antiquity’s provenance as provided by dealers without stringently investigating its validity.
Before entertaining questions from the packed Press Club Ballroom, the session closed with thoughts for the future. Gary Vikan of the Walters Art Museum proposed that perhaps the best way to address the perennial tug-of-war between art-rich/cash-poor source countries and art-poor/cash rich consumer countries would be to encourage a system of long-term loans. In the wake of the Italian government’s prosecution of former Getty Museum curator, Marion True, the Getty returned a number of important items, but the Italian government also agreed to lend the museum significant items to help fill the void.
Such a model could be used to perpetuate the objectives of “universal museums” aiming to display the breadth of human creativity without swelling the demand for looted antiquities. It would also encourage sharing of knowledge and expertise. Aggressively pursuing a series of long-term loans rather than permanent acquisitions certainly honors the value of our shared human heritage without the potential ethical pitfalls of purchase. Though long-terms loans address neither the issue of private collectors nor their museum bequests, it does give hope for the future. Tonight's discussion served to highlight the pivotal, complex nature of the debate and the far-reaching effects of the Italian efforts to repatriate looted antiquities.