Tag Archives: Euphronios krater

Hecht’s Footprints: Haverford College Opens Up About Source of Their Greek Vases

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht died in February 2012 after six decades at the top of the trade in recently looted Classical antiquities.

I’ve recently learned that some of that infamous career will be recounted when Hecht’s memoir is privately published in the coming months. The book is based on Hecht’s handwritten memoir, seized by Italian authorities from his Paris apartment and used as evidence against him at his Italian criminal trial. (I have a copy of Hecht’s notes and can assure you that he names names!) That account will be supplemented and expanded upon by a series of interviews Hecht conducted with Geraldine Norman, a former art market correspondent for the Independent.

Hecht on trial in Rome, 2006

Hecht on trial in Rome, 2006

It’s not clear how widely available the book will be for sale, but Hecht’s account will almost certainly be incomplete. His trafficking network spread tens of thousands of looted ancient sculptures, coins and vases across museums and collectors around the world.

How should museums handle those Hecht objects in their collection today? That is the question I tackle in a forthcoming article in the alumni magazine for Haverford College, Hecht’s alma mater. Haverford’s current exhibition of Greek vases tied to Hecht serves as a good model for others museums wrestling with his sticky legacy.

The full article, which will appear in Haverford’s alumni magazine in late November, includes comments from alumni James Wright, Brian Rose, Edward L. Bleiberg, Carlos Picon (kinda), Jeremy Rutter and Patty Gerstenblith.

Here’s an excerpt:

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Jenna McKinley has spent much of her life visiting museums. But it was only recently that she began thinking about how ancient objects had ended up in those museum vitrines.

The question arose while McKinley, a Haverford class of 2015 art history major and classics minor, was researching a collection of ancient Greek vases given to Haverford more than two decades ago by George and Ernest Allen, twin brothers who graduated from the college in 1940.

The Allen brothers acquired most of the ancient vases, McKinley learned, from Robert E. Hecht, Jr. ’41, a Latin major who went on to become one of the world’s leading—and most controversial—dealers in ancient art.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 6.26.24 PMOver a storied six-decade career, Hecht sold tens of thousands of pieces of ancient art to leading museums and private collectors around the globe. Throughout, he was dogged by accusations that his wares had been recently—and illegally—excavated from tombs and ruins across the Mediterranean.

In the 1960s, Hecht was thrown out of Turkey and banned for life from Italy for allegedly trafficking in looted antiquities. In the 1970s, he sold the Metropolitan Museum of Art its famous “hot pot,” the Euphronios krater, whose $1 million price tag and mysterious origins immediately sparked claims that it had been looted. In the 1980s, Hecht was part of an alleged tax-fraud scheme involving the donation of hundreds of looted antiquities to the J. Paul Getty Museum near Los Angeles. And in 2005, he was criminally charged by Italy as the mastermind of an international looting and smuggling ring.

Hecht died in 2012, weeks after that Italian criminal case ended with no verdict, because the allotted time had expired. Despite a lifetime of allegations, he was never convicted of a crime.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 6.38.27 PMAs McKinley discovered in her research during the summer of 2013, the Allen collection, which became part of Magill Library’s Special Collections, was an artifact of Hecht’s long, colorful career. From the 1950s until the 1970s, George Allen worked as Hecht’s Philadelphia sales representative, publishing a biannual catalog of antiquities under the name Hesperia Art. Over the years, he arranged for his brother Ernest to purchase several vases from Hecht.

McKinley excavated this hidden history over the next year, poring through yellowing college records and dusty Hesperia catalogs and reading books about Hecht’s role in the illicit antiquities trade. Her findings, along with the 20 Greek vases that inspired them, went on display in October in the Sharpless Gallery in Magill Library. The exhibit, titled Putting the Pieces Together: Antiquities From the Allen Collection, runs through Jan. 2.

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It is rare for the history of an antiquities collection to be discussed so openly. Museums, while dedicated to education, often reveal little about where and how they obtained their ancient art, something McKinley hopes her exhibition can help change.

“We display the objects themselves regardless of their cracks,” McKinley writes in the essay that accompanies the exhibit, “but too often we try to ignore the fragmented nature of their more recent histories.”

Terry Snyder, the librarian of the college, conceived of the project in the fall of 2012 during conversations with Associate Professor of Classics Bret Mulligan. Both recognized that revealing the history of the vases could invite a claim for their return by Italy, where they were likely found. But the opportunity for a valuable educational experience outweighed the risk, Snyder and Mulligan concluded.

“If you collect things and hide them away, the world loses,” says Snyder, who tapped McKinley to research and curate the exhibit. “These questions about the vases and other antiquities are big ones that really create an opportunity for learning. Each item has its own biography. What can these materials teach us? This exhibit is a great opportunity for our students to delve into these issues, to raise questions about cultural patrimony, and to see where they lead. Haverford students are not afraid of hard questions. That goes back to the College’s Quaker values and our educational values.”

The Allen exhibit puts Haverford squarely in the middle of an international conversation about the role that museums and universities have played in the illicit antiquities trade, a global black market supplied by looters and smugglers and stoked by the art market’s demand for ancient relics.

As McKinley learned, the story of how ancient objects came to sit on the shelves has, until recently, been largely hidden. Over the past decade, however, those stories have begun to come to light, thanks to criminal investigations, probing journalists, and growing demands from foreign countries that their cultural relics be returned.

The ensuing controversy has shaken this corner of the art world to its roots.

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Robert E. Hecht Jr., leading antiquities dealer over five decades, dead at 92.

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

Robert E. Hecht Jr. 1919 - 2012

Bob Hecht died quietly at home in Paris at about noon on Wednesday, according to his wife Elizabeth. He was 92 years old. Here’s my obituary in the LA Times.

When Robert E. Hecht Jr. arrived at the loading platform of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the fall of 1972, he was carrying a large wooden box and was escorted by an armed guard.

Inside the box was perhaps the finest Greek vase to survive antiquity, a masterpiece that would soon be making headlines around the world.

The Met had agreed to pay a record $1 million for the ancient work. Hecht said it had been in the private collection of a certain Lebanese gentleman.

But when Met director Thomas Hoving heard the story, he scoffed: “I bet he doesn’t exist.”

Indeed, as Hecht later revealed in his unpublished memoir, he had just bought the vase from “loyal suppliers” who had dug it up from ancient tombs outside Rome and smuggled it out of Italy.

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

The ensuing controversy over the so-called Euphronios krater marked a turning point in the art world, opening the public’s eyes to the shady side of museums. It also solidified Hecht’s reputation as the preeminent dealer of classical antiquities, driving him underground — but not out of business.

He became a legendary but mysterious figure, one whose passion for ancient art overcame any questions about the destruction wrought by its illicit origins.

That career ended Wednesday, when Hecht died at his home in Paris at age 92.

His death comes less than three weeks after the ambiguous end of his criminal trial in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted antiquities. Since the 1990s, Hecht had been at the center of an Italian investigation that traced objects looted from tombs in Italy through a network of smugglers, dealers and private collectors to museums across the United States, Europe and beyond.

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

Hecht was accused of being a key player in that illicit trade, along with his alleged co-conspirators, former J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True and Italian dealer Giacomo Medici. Medici, who supplied Hecht with the Met’s famous vase after buying it from looters, was convicted in 2004. The trial of Hecht and True began in 2005, but the statute of limitations expired before the court could reach a verdict for either.

In a phone interview after his trial ended, Hecht sounded frail but characteristically coy about the source of his remarkable inventory of ancient vases, statues and frescoes, which now reside in museums around the globe.

“I have no idea of where an object was excavated,” he said. “It could have been excavated 100 years ago; it could have been excavated an hour ago.”

Hecht was born in Baltimore in 1919, heir to the Washington, D.C.-area department store chain that bore his family name. He served in the Navy Reserve in World War II, then accepted a scholarship to study classics and archaeology at the American Academy in Rome.

It was there that he began buying ancient art. At the time, ancient artifacts were sold openly to tourists in the city’s piazzas. But Hecht soon learned that his passion carried risks.

In 1962, he was barred from reentering Turkey after being accused of trying to smuggle out ancient coins. Not long after, he was accused in Italy of trafficking in looted antiquities. Italy’s highest court eventually exonerated him for lack of evidence.

That case was still working through Italy’s legal system when Hecht was offered the Euphronios krater by Medici, who had grown up near the Etruscan necropolis where the vase was illegally excavated.

The deal cemented Hecht’s relationship with Medici, whom he describes in his memoir as “a faithful purveyor” who “rose early each morning [and] toured the villages … visiting all the clandestine diggers.”

The ensuing scandal forced Hecht to relocate to Paris and do business through a series of front men, one of whom was a precocious ancient coin dealer named Bruce McNall.

“He was like a father,” said McNall, who first met Hecht in 1970 while buying ancient coins at an auction in Basel. “He was one of the most fascinating characters I’ve met in my life — a man of mystery, a genius, a family man.”

Soon after meeting, McNall and Hecht became partners, and according to McNall began selling recently looted antiquities to museums and collectors out of McNall’s Rodeo Drive storefront gallery. They also created an elaborate tax fraud scheme with former Getty antiquities curator Jiri Frel, arranging for Hollywood figures to donate looted antiquities to the Getty in exchange for inflated tax write-offs.

“I found him to be without question the most knowledgeable person I’d met in the business, much more of an academic than a dealer,” said McNall, who went on to produce Hollywood films and buy the Los Angeles Kings hockey team before going to jail on unrelated bank fraud charges.

Among Hecht’s top clients was the J. Paul Getty Museum, which was aggressively building its collection of ancient art in the 1980s and ’90s. In a deposition, True said Hecht could be “charming, very, very intelligent, but he could also turn, be very hostile, very sarcastic, very sinister.”

It was Hecht’s ties to the Getty that landed him on trial with True in Rome. In addition to Hecht’s memoir, which was seized in 2001, investigators found correspondence in which the two appeared to openly discuss the illicit origin of objects the Getty was buying.

Confronted with the evidence, the Getty and other leading American museums agreed to return more than 100 antiquities to Italy, including dozens that came through Hecht. Among them was the Met’s Euphronios krater, which was returned to Italy in 2008.

Ultimately, Italian prosecutors could not win a criminal conviction in the case before the allotted time elapsed.

“He was not able to be proven guilty, so he was innocent,” Hecht’s wife, Elizabeth, said Wednesday.

In addition to his wife, Hecht is survived by his daughters Daphne Hecht Howat of Paris, Andrea Hecht of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Donatella Hecht of Westchester, N.Y.

Please feel free to share your memories of him in the comments below.

American art dealer Robert Hecht, 86, center, is approached by reporters as he leaves a Rome court for a break Friday Jan. 13, 2006

A Call from Robert Hecht: I’m Not a Squealer

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

Robert Hecht

Robert Hecht called the other day to say he’d received the copy of Chasing Aphrodite that we sent to his home on Boulevard La Tour Maubourg in Paris.

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

Hecht is the American antiquities dealer who has dominated the trade for more than 50 years. Italian authorities believe he was also a mastermind of the international blackmarket in looted art — his name appeared at the top of an organization chart of looters, middlemen and dealers that Italian police found in the early 1990s. When Getty antiquities curator Marion True was indicted in 2005, Hecht was named as her co-defendant. His criminal trial in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted art continues today.

Here’s how we describe “the preeminent middleman of the classical antiquities trade” on page 30:

“Since the 1950s, Hecht had sold some of the finest pieces of classical art to emerge on the market. […] His network of loyal suppliers reached deep into the tombs and ruins of Greece, Turkey, and Italy. […] His clients included dozens of American and European museums, universities, and private collectors, including J. Paul Getty, whom Hecht had once persuaded to buy an intricately carved Roman bust. For decades, Hecht single-handedly dominated the antiquities market with his brilliance, brutality, and panache. He cited Virgil as readily as the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan, and he was known to break into operatic arias. He often drank to excess and was known to gamble his money away in all-night backgammon games. He tamed competitors with an unpredictable temper and eliminated rivals with anonymous calls to the police. Even those who sold directly to museums gave Hecht a cut of the deal, earning him the nickname ‘Mr. Percentage.'”

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

That’s the first of nearly thirty references to Hecht in Chasing Aphrodite. Even so, we felt it was short shrift for a man whose role in the art market is truly legendary. During our interviews and meetings with Hecht over the years, he was always a pleasure to deal with. He is an engaging dinner companion, often charming and talkative while being coy about the key details we were scratching for. Today, at 92 years old, he suffers from some health problems but retains the sharp wit he’s long been known for.

So, what did Hecht think of the book? “It was a well written book except for one lie, which I hope was not your invention,” he said.

Hecht was not disturbed by the allegations that he virtually ran the illicit antiquities trade for 50 years. He wasn’t upset about being called a gambler and an abusive alcoholic, or a participant in a massive tax fraud scheme, or the man largely responsible for the destruction of thousands of archaeological sites. The offending passage was the  reference to Hecht “eliminating rivals with an anonymous call to the police.” We based it on conversations with Italian law enforcement sources. Hecht assures us it is not true.

“The accusation of being a squealer is very serious,” Hecht said. “That is not in my blood.” Hecht said such accusations could be bad for business, which has been slow lately: “A customer might say, oh my god, you’re a spy for the police.” Hecht’s wife Elizabeth got on the phone next to explain that the charge had troubled her husband: “A lot of people we know did do that, but Bob never did. He’s not a rat, and does not wish to be known as such.”

Cult Statue of a Goddess (Aphrodite)

Many in the trade recall how Hecht threatened to expose his rivals in a memoir he was writing. He never followed through on those threats — the unpublished memoir was seized by Italian authorities and is now among the most compelling evidence against him at trial.

But dropping a dime to the police is different. Going back over our notes, there is only one specific case Italian authorities cited in suspecting Hecht of being “a squealer.” It involved the Getty’s 1988 acquisition of the statue of Aphrodite from Hecht’s rival, London dealer Robin Symes.

Shortly after the whopping $18 million acquisition — a record at the time –Interpol Paris received an anonymous tip claiming the Aphrodite had been looted from Morgantina, Sicily. The tipster named the looters and middlemen in the transaction with detail that later proved remarkably accurate. Italian authorities have long suspected the source was Hecht, who lived in Paris at the time and may have been jealous of his rival Symes. But the Italians have no proof of their hunch, and Hecht flatly denies being the tipster.

Given his clear denial, and absent further supporting evidence from our Italian sources, we agreed to correct the record. Robert Hecht is many things, but to the best of our knowledge, he is not a squealer.

We’ve invited Hecht to join us later this month in his hometown of Baltimore, where we’ll be speaking at the Walters Museum on October 29th. He will be in the States that week and did not rule out the possibility of joining us.