Q&A with James H. Landon

Published in 2009 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine

By Erik Lundegaard on February 18, 2009


James H. Landon is a corporate tax and employee benefits attorney at Jones Day who has carved out a niche practice as the man to see when U.S. museums are negotiating for big exhibits from foreign collections. We spoke last fall.


Super Lawyers: What drew you to the law?

James Landon: I was influenced by some of the people I knew in Birmingham who were lawyers and who seemed to be just good, thoughtful people whose conduct and professional activity I admired.


Birmingham? Was this around the time of the civil rights movement?

I was right in the middle of it. That was in the spring of ’63, and I happened to graduate from high school in January rather than June and was working downtown. Those were the days of the race riots and the National Guard being stationed in the city park downtown not far from where I was working.

That was a very interesting time to be in the South. It was particularly interesting for me, because my parents were not Southern, they were from Illinois. I remember my father explaining the Ku Klux Klan once. He said, “Well, basically, you just need to remember if you have to wear a mask to do something, you shouldn’t be doing it.” I thought that was a pretty good truism.


The draft was still in place by the time you graduated, wasn’t it?

I had been at ROTC at Vanderbilt, so I was already a commissioned lieutenant and my active duty was deferred until after completing law school.

I have some great stories from [ROTC] summer camp—only one of which I’ll bore you with, but it connected Vanderbilt and Harvard for me.

During summer camp at Fort Bragg we had one day that stands out among others. It was 105 degrees. At that temperature you’re allowed to take your pants cuffs out of the tops of your boots—it’s considered a humanitarian gesture—so that the sweat won’t pile up inside your boots.

After we had struggled under barbed wire and siphoned red dust down our backs and gone through all kinds of tear-gas training, where people throw up into their gas masks if they don’t have them on right, and we’d had lunch out in the field, where we were served liver—it was a perfect day—we did hand grenade practice. It was sort of like a water ballet. You had 10 guys in a row, you dropped to your knee, you all—at the same time and in coordination—pulled the pin. You’d been told only one thing but this you’d been told very strictly: the grenade is much heavier than you expect, and you cannot just straight-arm pitch it like a baseball. You have to lob it from behind you.

The sergeant was standing in front of us, and we were to toss these grenades way over his head and into the woods behind. They were not live grenades but they were heavy grenades. And so we all dropped to our knees, the 10 of us, pulled the pin. Except my pin wouldn’t come out. And so everybody else had gone through this ballet and I was still trying to get the damn pin out, and finally I just jerked it out, forgot the lobbing part, threw it, and managed to hit the guy right in the groin.


[Laughs.] What was his reaction?

Well, as I told my parents that next week, I learned some new words.


Did you concentrate on any particular area at Harvard Law?

No, [but] I found the most interesting area of law to be tax—which I know leaves many eyes glazed.


Why did it appeal to you?

I liked the fact that there were normally answers in tax. Somehow [after studying English literature at Vanderbilt] it was reassuring to have an answer occasionally.


I assume you have to keep up with new tax laws.

I try.

One of the great things about this immense law firm is the number of specialists we have in various areas. You may have been exposed to a law that was enacted to be effective in 2005 called Section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code, which has just wreaked havoc with all executive compensation arrangements, and it’s something that I have to practice in every day, but happily we have many experts at the firm. In fact, we have a conference call every Wednesday at noon throughout the country for people who are dealing in the area.

I’m not a Pollyanna about big law firms but there are advantages.


You helped arrange for the Louvre-Atlanta exhibit at the High Museum. When was that?

It’s ongoing. It’s a three-year collaboration. It’s unprecedented for the Louvre, and for [the High Museum], and it was the consequence of personal relationships between the directors of the two institutions and their desire to do something together.

There is a point in all of this I want to underscore: The lawyer doesn’t do this, I’m just a plumber. I try to help them effect what it is they’ve decided to do. Now I can point out to them things that have not been thought through…

What happens when you have, for instance, a provision for acts of God? All contracts have them and basically they say the contract is off if there’s an act of God that makes it impossible. Well, what does that mean? Does one museum get its loan fee back or does it still have to pay it? Does it mean that if one major piece is affected the other pieces don’t travel because it was supposed to be a unified whole?

More interesting, probably, was the Portland Art Museum’s very successful effort to borrow the Von Hesse collection. Once again, I was just the plumber.


What kind of plumbing did you do?

We were trying to meet requirements that were quite demanding for the maintenance of the art. Some of the pieces were on inherently unstable backings: wood panels from the 15th and 16th century. When you move wood from one humidity level to another, it expands or it cracks. So you have to try to create boxes in which you can maintain the humidity, the air pressure, the whole thing, and then you have to fly the whole thing 30,000 feet above the earth and wonder what’s going to happen to it. And who’s responsible if it does happen to it. And how much is reasonable wear and tear on a 250-year-old painting…

[But] those things are extremely important, if you believe in—as I do, and I’ve lectured occasionally on—the history of museums.


Did you become interested in museum history once it became a part of your practice?

Yes. In particular I became interested in the Louvre. Because the Louvre, as you may know, began as a royal palace with a royal collection. It was not a public institution. And then after the French Revolution it became quite public.

That prompted me to wonder… Where did museums start? Who had the thought of a museum? We take them so for granted. In fact, museums didn’t occur until the 18th century. They are a Western concept. Prior to that time, it was just rich people showing other rich people what they had, but there was no such thing as a public museum. The first museums that I’ve been able to determine: the Bibloteca Ambrosiana in Milan around 1608, and then a library at Oxford University.

So when you think about how enriched our lives are—mine, yours probably, certainly most of our colleagues—by what we are able to see that doesn’t belong to us, or even to the person showing it to us, through these loan exhibitions, how much better we understand the cultures that have produced these things, it’s just wonderful.


When negotiating with museums, who’s your counterpart on the other side?

With the Louvre and Portland and the rest, rarely do the lawyers speak directly—unless it’s on a specific legal point. I advise my client and my client then negotiates with the other museum or the lender. … And then, at some point, I will talk to their lawyers once the agreement has been reached, to see if the words reflect the agreement.


Do you talk in English? Or through interpreters?

That’s another phenomenal value of this global firm. Again, this is not an advertisement, I’m just speaking the facts that became so obvious to me. When we were dealing with the Louvre, and were dealing particularly with fine points of translation, I was able to engage my partner, Gael Saint Olive in our Paris office, who understood completely the importance of the Louvre, the importance of this project, had a cousin who worked at the Louvre who was familiar with what we were up to. Our client was just fascinated that Gael was their lawyer. They had a Frenchman for their lawyer, on their side, and that was so reassuring to them.


You’re traveling to Paris in November for a symposium. What’s it about?

The overall title is “Art in Troubled Times.” [It] has to do with things such as the destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas a few years back, Nazi art theft, the issue of the Baghdad Museum when we invaded Iraq…

This whole issue of cultural patrimony, whether people should share their cultural treasures with different countries, is a very controversial area. … Countries take the position—particularly, more recently, middle American and South American countries—that anything that is excavated from below the surface of the ground belongs to the nation and not to the individual on whose property it was found. [It’s] a theory to impress ownership rights that would thwart smuggling and exporting.


Are there statutes of limitations? Because, say, St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, an absolutely gorgeous building, is mostly plunder from other countries.

One of the interesting things is whether you apply the law of the country where the object is located today or the law of the country from which the object was purportedly, illicitly removed. They may have different statutes of limitations. One may be a code-law country and one may be a common-law country, in which event a buyer in good faith takes completely different types of title. And when you get into that kind of legal mess…

I like to think, generally, that the law is on the side of what’s right. But sometimes you have to create a finality. You have to determine title, right or not, so that commerce can move on.

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