A critical look at U.S. media coverage of antiquities issues

Roger AtwoodArticle, Commentary, ReportLeave a Comment

This paper was given by Roger Atwood, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University and a contributing editor atArchaeology magazine, at the conference “The Future of the Global Past” at Yale University on April 14, 2007. Atwood spoke on the panel “The Media and the Message” with John Malcolm Russell, Mark Rose and Michel Brent.

Anyone who reads a newspaper knows that major American museums are facing unprecedented scrutiny in the press over their antiquities collections. Investigative-reporting teams more accustomed to covering government graft or corporate malfeasance have been probing museum acquisitions and finding dubious practices at some of the country’s most prestigious cultural institutions. In this paper, I will compare coverage by three major newspapers—The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe andThe New York Times—of antiquities issues as they relate to museums in the newspapers’ respective cities. Other news organizations, including National Public Radio and Bloomberg News, have also covered antiquities issues but these three metropolitan dailies have dedicated the most resources and set the pace within journalism.

Investigative reporting

Let me first offer a definition of what I mean by investigative reporting, which is a recognized discipline within the profession. Most stories have an investigative element, but investigative stories, as such, ordinarily have three basic characteristics. One, that the story reveals some information hidden by a person or institution; two, that the information is of significant public interest; and three, that the information is derived from the reporter’s own efforts, that is, not taken entirely from court proceedings, police blotters or other publicly available sources. Often such stories will be supplemented by documents. A minority of the stories that I reviewed for this article could properly be called investigative, but they are among the most important ones.

In total, I reviewed 41 articles in The Los Angeles Times, 18 inThe Boston Globe, and 96 in The New York Times published in the year-and-a-half between August 2005 and April 2007. All these articles involved the accusations against museums that they received antiquities looted in Italy or Greece.

The Los Angeles Times

Coverage by The Los Angeles Times initially focused on charges that the J. Paul Getty Museum received at least 82 objects, including urns, vases and a 5-foot marble statue of Apollo, from dealers under investigation for selling artifacts looted in Italy. Later research found that the Getty had identified some 350 Roman, Etruscan and Greek objects of questionable provenance in its collection. It is, frankly, hard to find much to criticize about the L.A. Times’ investigative series. The stories are extraordinarily well-researched, based in part on hundreds of pages of Getty records obtained by reporters Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, and the stories are unfailingly well-sourced, colorfully written, and filled out with context and expert comment to explain the issues to readers unfamiliar with them.

The L.A. Times series on the Getty has been unusually long-running, in part because the museum’s negotiations with Italy were especially complex compared to those of the Boston MFA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet the newspaper’s coverage has never lost sight of what is at stake in the Getty case, and that is the damage caused by the looting of ancient sites and the way in which the Getty benefited from the pillage. Nearly every story mentions in its first paragraph the fact that the antiquities in question were looted from ancient sites; most people in this room know that, but part of the great impact of the L.A. Times’ series derived from the fact that the general public does not necessarily know it. By reporting this, the Times was effectively opening a window for the public into how museums have been amassing their antiquities collections over the years while publicly decrying looting. In these documents uncovered by Felch and Frammolino, Getty officials make what the reporters call “frank, almost casual references to ancient sites from which artifacts had been excavated, apparently in violation of Italian law.” A 1986 hand-written note by Getty museum director John Walsh records a meeting with Harold Williams, then chief-executive of the Getty Trust, in which they are discussing a statue of Aphrodite that curator Marion True saw at the London office of Robin Symes. “We know it’s stolen,” the note quotes Williams as saying. “Symes a fence.” Later, reporters for theTimes traveled to the village in Italy where the statue came from and tracked down the looter who found it. Coverage by the L.A. Times, based on interviews and reviews of confidential documents written by Getty internal investigators, led in part to the resignation of Williams’ successor as CEO, Barry Munitz, and the current negotiations with foreign governments over the return of some of the looted artwork.

The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe has a distinguished track record of reporting on dubious acquisitions practices at the Museum of Fine Arts and the larger issues of site-looting and smuggling. It puts the big guns on the story. In 1997 and 1998, Walter V. Robinson, one of the most distinguished investigative reporters in this country, led the Globe ‘s investigation into the MFA’s acquisition of 34 Guatemalan artifacts that bore all the hallmarks of loot. The paper brought to bear resources in Boston and Guatemala, contextualizing the museum story with reporting on the ground on the pillage of Maya sites and giving the public a fuller understanding of what is lost when sites are looted and how museums are seen as contributing to the process by acquiring undocumented antiquities.

So when the Italian story came along, with the evidence gathered in raids on the properties of Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici, the Globe was well-positioned on the issue. It seems to have cultivated good sources within the MFA, although its coverage is, in my opinion, somewhat less investigative and more superficial on the Italian story than that of The Los Angeles Times. But it had its coups. In July 2006, the Globe reported that its own examination of MFA records showed that 61 of 71 classical objects acquired in only the three years from 1985 to 1987 had no documentation at all. As the story said, “scholars say that’s a giveaway that the artifacts were dug out of the ground by looters and smuggled out of the country by shady dealers.” The Globe ‘s reporting, plus Italian government intervention and the MFA’s good faith, led to the return of 13 Greek and Roman antiquities to Italy in 2006.

The New York Times

Now I turn to The New York Times. Its coverage has been staggering in terms of column inches, which has been by far the greatest of these three papers, and all the more so bearing in mind how few of its stories actually bring new information to the table or break some new angle. I don’t find a single article that you could properly call investigative in the entire New York Times opus on this issue during this period, not a single inquiry of its own into the provenance of antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or any other museum or the legal ramifications of the accusations facing them. I find one, rather marginal development which the Timesseems to have been the first to report, and that’s Marion True posting bail in Greece in January 2007.

If you were expecting the Times to cover the Met the way theGlobe covered the MFA or the L. A. Times covered the Getty, you would be disappointed. Often, the Times moved the story forward by simply citing the previous day’s L. A. Times story about the investigations involving the Getty.

It should be said that The New York Times ‘ coverage has been more analytic than the others and is often beautifully written. Its coverage follows a pattern of factual, thorough reporting of the legal proceedings in Rome and discussions between museums and the Italian government, combined with reported articles from New York, and then longer, interpretive pieces usually written by paper’s art critics. All these stories combined give the sense of full-court coverage without actually breaking much news.

I had problems with the Times’ balance. The long, reported pieces are often quite conspicuously weighted toward one side in the controversy, the side of collectors and museum directors, who are given much more space to state their case than archaeologists or other critics of the antiquities trade. One typical article, published on May 17, 2005, quotes six people associated with the museum point-of-view, including four from institutions that signed the 2002 Universal Declaration of Munich defending their collecting of antiquities. Only one person, an archaeologist, is quoted from what might be called the opposing point of view. Another piece, in February 2006, quotes four different art museum directors plus the director of the Association of Art Museum Directors discussing at length something that the article asserts will “raise the hackles of archaeologists.” Do any archaeologists actually have their hackles raised? There is only one quoted, and he is a given a total of nine words.

I also find references to the “archaeological lobby,” with no explanation of how archaeologists constitute a lobby, and no references at all to a dealers lobby, a collectors lobby, or a museum lobby except the kind where you get an information booklet. A “lobby” is a fairly specific thing; you have to register as a lobbyist to lobby in Congress. The closest thing the archaeologists have to that would be, presumably, the Archaeological Institute of America, which is a professional organization that doesn’t do much of what you could legitimately call lobbying. Dealers and the museums have bona fide lobbying organizations, as they should, but they are not described that way in The New York Times.

The lengthy, analytic pieces by Times art critics are perhaps the most characteristic feature of the newspaper’s coverage. They draw on the paper’s expertise on arts issues and, again, consistently articulate the position of the accused museums, that pressure for repatriation of looted goods is motivated by nationalism. The language is lively and provocative. A piece by Michael Kimmelman on July 2, 2006 (actually a review of a French museum), asserts that “claims of cultural patrimony and calls for the repatriation of antiquities (Italians wanting back ancient art dug up in Italy, Greeks wanting back Greek art) stem from nationalist politics and legal disputes. But they’re fundamentally about who gets to assign meaning.” (Parentheses in original.)

In another piece, in December 2006, Kimmelman repeats the position of numerous defenders of the antiquities trade, that the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan somehow undermines the arguments of archaeologists who want to stop looting. He writes: “Ask the archaeologists who have been trying to piece together what’s left of the Bamiyan Buddhas, blown up the Taliban in 2001 in Afghanistan, whether objects necessarily ‘belong’ to the people who now occupy the land where the art comes from.” He goes on to note the outflow of antiquities from Cambodia, “where the Khmer Rouge, for example, ransacked Cambodian monuments and hawked fragments to finance their regime.” Kimmelman’s arguments are more subtle than I can portray here, but to say that Cambodian monuments were ransacked and sold piecemeal by the Khmer Rouge is, at best, misleading. The looting of Cambodian monuments has ebbed and flowed over many years. By far the worst of it occurred following the 1991 peace agreement, and it was to feed the antiquities trade, not raise money for the Khmer Rouge, which by then had been out of power for years. I’m not saying peace agreements are bad or that the Khmer Rouge is good, just that it is important to be accurate. That month was fairly typical of the Times ‘ coverage of antiquities issues: news stories on legal proceedings in Rome, a few thumbsuckers, and nothing about the Met that sounds like it came from anywhere but the Met’s own press office.

A few weeks later, The New York Times Magazine, which has its own editorial structure, published an interview with Met director Philippe de Montebello. The interview has a chummy, softbally tone. The interviewer asks Montebello why the Italian government “is suddenly getting so aggressive about seizing works from the Met and the Getty and other American museums. It’s not as if Italy is rushing to return the gilded horses of San Marco, stolen by the Venetians in the 1200s from Constantinople.” Montebello takes the cue and criticizes “nationalism and misplaced patriotism. There is a sense that, ‘This is our identity.’ But I can’t see how a Greek vase is the identity of a modern-day Italian.” In that exchange, you get a sense that interviewer and interviewee agree that the real force motivating the Italian efforts is not the desire to slow the destruction of its ancient sites, but a misguided nationalism.

This piece reflects also a tendency in the Times’ coverage to rely on exclusive interviews, which bring distinction and authority to any news organization’s coverage of a major serial. But bagging exclusive interviews is no substitute for real reporting and, piled on top of each other, they give an impression of privileged access in exchange for sympathetic treatment. Recent interviews with the collector Shelby White (who also writes occasionally for the Times) and the chairman of the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee, Jay Kislak, suggest a newspaper that is dining out on its insider access. One story carries exclusive quotes from White—who rarely grants interviews—and then refers to her as “in many ways … the profile of the ideal trustee.”

There may be more to this impression than just a few friendly Q&A’s. The same article, on December 10, 2005, reveals parenthetically that the chairman emeritus of The New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, was, along with Shelby White, a member of the Met’s acquisitions committee, which had been receiving antiquities now under a legal cloud. Sulzberger has long been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Met. It is less widely known that he has also been, since 1970, a member of the acquisitions committee. This fact puts him and the Times squarely into the story. The Times published no fewer than seven major articles, including four on its front page, about the legal ramifications of the Met’s acquisitions practices without mentioning the fact that its chairman emeritus served on the committee that made those acquisitions. (The last time Sulzberger’s role on the acquisitions committee was mentioned in the Times was in 1987. In “Sulzberger is elected Chairman of the Met,” by Grace Gleuck, The New York Times, May 13, 1987, paragraph three reads in part, “Mr. Sulzberger, who has been a trustee of the Met since 1968, has been on its executive committee since 1985 and on its acquisitions committee since 1970.”).

On its face this certainly looks like a departure from basic full-disclosure practices that apply to all news organizations and which, by and large, they observe. It raises serious questions about whether the Times is too close to the Met to cover it properly. Do its reporters have enough professional distance from the Met to cover it as they would any other large non-profit? Are they encouraged to report critically on the Met’s legal problems with Italy and other countries? Why is the Met’s long history of legal problems with archaeological source countries, particularly Turkey, so rarely mentioned in stories by way of background?

These are questions that I hope Times editors will think about, because right now their coverage of the Met looks complacent and credulous. The Times has covered the Met as if it were just another cultural institution, like a symphony orchestra or a ballet company, rather than as it is: a large, powerful organization that has been accused, rightly or wrongly, of repeatedly failing to live up to its own ethical standards and receiving a lot of stolen property.

The Washington Post

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned another newspaper with a long tradition of investigative reporting, and that’s The Washington Post. Unlike Los Angeles, Boston and New York, there is no major museum in the Washington area in the business of acquiring undocumented antiquities on a large scale, and perhaps for that reason the Post has put fewer resources into the story. But look at the Post ‘s coverage of the Smithsonian recently. The reporting by James Grimaldi and others has exposed questionable business practices, outrageous salaries and lack of oversight at Smithsonian, leading to the resignation of its top official, Lawrence Small, and a congressional probe. The Post ‘s reporting has brought it distinction and performed a valuable public service. Just this week, Grimaldi reported that the secretary and deputy secretary of Smithsonian held high-paying positions on the board of the Chubb Group while the Smithsonian paid that company $500,000 a year for insurance. A conflict of interest? When asked in Congress, the Smithsonian inspector-general said: “There certainly is an appearance of a conflict of interest to me and we would like to look into that.” When they’re ahead of the inspector-general, you know reporters are doing their job.

The Post ‘s coverage of Smithsonian, The Los Angeles Times’ coverage of the Getty, and the Globe ‘s coverage of the MFA are all in the best traditions of American investigative reporting. Reading these long-running serials, it becomes clear that the state of reporting on the underside of our cultural institutions is good. Perhaps the oft-repeated complaints that American arts reporting is sinking into a morass of celebrity fluff have been misplaced. Newspapers are probing corruption at cultural institutions and finding some very bad stuff.

Against this backdrop, The New York Times is starting to look like the odd man out. And people are noticing. At the National Press Club in Washington last April, Philippe de Montebello urged investigative reporters to look into the practices at big museums like his own. “Be skeptical toward what museums’ spokespersons say,” he said. I hope reporters everywhere take that advice. And I hope Mr. Montebello will tell it to Mr. Sulzberger at the next meeting of the Met’s acquisitions committee.

A few examples of U.S. media coverage:

Lost Angeles Times reporting
(late 2004-April 2007)

New York Times reporting
(late 2004-April 2007)

Boston Globe reporting
(2005- 2006)

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Roger Atwood

Roger Atwood is a Contributing Editor at Archaeology magazine, a London correspondent for ARTnews and author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, which won the SAFE-Beacon Award and was made into a segment on the History Channel series Save Our History: FBI Stings. He has held an Alicia Patterson Fellowship and a Knight International Press Fellowship and written on cultural heritage for publications including National Geographic, The Washington Post and Mother Jones. He speaks regularly on heritage issues, most recently at the conference "Vulnerability and Cultural Heritage" at the University of Leicester, UK. He lives currently in London.

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