Letter: Dishonourable treatment of Getty

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The Independent Online
Sir: Canova's Three Graces is a major work of art which would have been, in normal circumstances, a marvellously appropriate addition to this country's publicly owned artistic inheritance, but circumstances are not normal in this case.

In your report (14 September) of the proceedings in the High Court, in which the Getty Museum contested the fairness of Stephen Dorrell's deferral for an additional three months of the issue of an export licence in its favour, the judgment appeared to turn on whether or not a reliably reported and clear statement of intent by the then minister last February that there would be no prolongation after August could be taken as tantamount to an assurance or promise. May I remind your readers that Peter Brooke, the then Secretary of State for National Heritage, in answer to a question, is quoted in your columns (17 February) as having stated that there would be 'no further extension beyond August'. I am not aware of any disclaimer at the time as to the accuracy of your report. And there are two further indications which are consistent with the presumption that your report is likely to have been accurate.

First, since the 18 months' deferral suggested by the committee advising the minister had been rejected by him on the ground that it was so long as to be unfair to the museum, it is reasonable

to suppose that the six months' deferral then decided upon was the maximum period which he then considered to be fair.

Secondly, it has become the sensible custom for the minister to defer the issuing of a licence for a given period in order to ascertain whether, in the meantime, sufficient interest has been aroused to justify a further prolongation. Such a provision was, however, absent from the minister's statement in February.

In such circumstances the Getty Museum had, it was argued in court, a 'legitimate expectation' that the date of 5 August would, in fact, be final. Sensible relations with foreign purchasers are bound to be impaired in the future if the Government persists in claiming that a clear ministerial statement can be treated, whenever such a course may seem convenient to it, as not being binding. I should like to add that, many years ago when the Getty Museum's immense purchase funds were about to come on stream, I lunched with its director, John Walsh, and - as one gentleman to another - expressed my conviction that if his museum acted with understanding it would receive scrupulously fair treatment from our authorities. It is well known in museum circles that Mr Walsh has since behaved impeccably, and indeed has taken exceptional steps on occasion not to stand in this country's way in matters of acquisition. Alas, I now deeply regret that I was ingenuous enough to have misled Mr Walsh.

Yours faithfully,


London, SW1

14 September