Tag Archives: J. Paul Getty

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.

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The Secret FBI File: J. Edgar Hoover vs. J. Paul Getty

Was J. Paul Getty a Nazi collaborator?

That is the provocative question that J. Edgar Hoover asked in 1940, when the FBI opened a secret investigation into J. Paul Getty’s possible ties to the Nazi regime.

While reporting Chasing Aphrodite, we obtained Getty’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. It contains a fascinating account of the FBI’s ultimately inconclusive espionage investigation into Getty, who some in the government feared was “extremely dangerous to the safety of this country.”

We’ve posted and annotated* the complete FBI file in four parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. We’ve also posted a declassified file from the Department of State here.

Here are highlights from Hoover’s investigation in J. Paul Getty, at the time one of the world’s richest men:

Aug 1940: The FBI takes notice when sources report that J. Paul Getty (“Geddy”) buys the run-down Hotel Pierre on 5th Avenue in New York City, fires the staff and replaces them with “employees of the Italian consulate.” Months earlier, Italy had joined forces with Nazi Germany. An inquiry is opened.

Aug 29, 1940: J. Edgar Hoover orders the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office to launch “a complete and thorough investigation” of Getty, noting his employees’ “Italian consular connections.” Hoover writes: “Getty may, because of his oil interests and German descent, be engaged in activity inimical to our Government.”

Nov 1940: After a preliminary investigation, the FBI opens a formal case file on Getty, listing the focus of the investigation as “Espionage.”

Nov 11, 1940: The investigation finds Getty has been married four times, and was accused of “immorality” and adultery by his wives.

Dec 1940: FBI file cites a New York Daily News article describing Getty as a “personal friend” of Hitler who has supplied oil to Russia.

December 1940: Getty’s attorneys write to US Embassy in London, denying claims made in Daily News article. Getty “never met and does not know Hitler, and is not and has never been friendly or sympathetic to him.”

Jan 1941: J. Edgar Hoover writes to the Attorney General, summarizing the investigation into possible espionage by J. Paul Getty.

Jan 1941: The FBI learns that in Nov 1939 Getty was in Berlin negotiating the sale of 1 million barrels of California oil to Soviet Russian buyers.

Nov 1941: FBI report from New York office summarizes investigation, concluding, “Investigation has failed to disclose information to substantiate allegations that the employees and those who frequent the hotel have Italian Consular connections.”

Jan 1942: Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge writes to Hoover saying there is insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution against Getty, but asks the FBI to continue its investigation.

April 1942: Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge instructs Hoover to continue investigation of Getty, noting “If these allegations, or some of them, are true the subject is a person extremely dangerous to the safety of this country.”

April 1942: In a heavily redacted report, a confidential source tells FBI investigators that Getty advised Nazi army “a way to break through the Maginot line,” France’s protective barrier with Germany. Source tells FBI investigator that Getty was interested in Hitler “merely because of the efficiency with which HITLER and other German officials conducted their system of government…” Getty is “amenable towards the way those in power crush the weak.” Source tells FBI investigators that Getty turned down offers of oil and art from Russian and German officials in exchange for his help drilling oil wells.

Aug 29, 1942: Getty was interviewed by the FBI and denied any ties to Hitler’s government.

Oct 1942: FBI summarizes investigation of Getty, concludes facts “do not reflect that he is engaged in espionage activities.” Case transferred to unnamed division of FBI.

July 1943: Attorney General Francis Biddle concludes the FBI’s use of “danger classifications” for individuals was a mistake and should be stopped. He orders a memo placed into Getty’s file and others classified as dangerous, noting that such designations were unreliable.

Sept 1961: In 1961, the Kennedy White House opened a confidential “name check” inquiry into Getty. The report notes the FBI’s investigation of Getty and the oil tycoon’s promiscuous relations. It also mentions that in the 1940s Getty was involved in a paternity dispute with a woman who claimed the true father of the child was Getty’s friend Charlie Chaplin. The White House deemed the information in the file not relevant to the the inquiry, whose focus is not revealed.

Aug 1963: Kennedy is said to have accused Getty of avoiding income tax payments and using his money to subsidize “extreme right-wing propaganda.”

March 1973: Nixon Dept Assistant Alexander Butterfield requests inquiry into J. Paul Getty.

In hindsight, the FBI’s two-year investigation of Getty found nothing concrete, and appears more guided by innuendo and rumor than hard fact. With the FBI’s current focus on penetrating domestic terror networks, it is noteworthy that soon after the investigation concluded, Attorney General Francis Biddle advised the FBI halt its use of “danger classifications” like the one applied to Getty.

“This classification system is inherently unreliable,” Biddle concluded. “The notion that a valid determination can be made of how dangerous a person is…is impractical, unwise and dangerous.”

To this day, rumors persist about Getty’s ties to Hitler and Mussolini.

*Thanks to our friends at DocumentCloud for hosting the Getty FBI files.

Video: The (Slightly Whitewashed) History of the Getty Villa

While we’re off on vacation for two weeks, we thought you’d enjoy this (somewhat whitewashed*) history of the Getty Villa. Produced by the Getty for promotional purposes, it features Stephen Garrett, the Getty’s first museum director, as well as former antiquities curator Marion True, who oversaw the transformation of the original museum into the Getty Villa as we know it today. Sadly, many of the galleries were designed around objects — such as the statue of Aphrodite seen in a diagram dominating the Gods and Goddesses Gallery at minute 7:00 — are no longer part of the Getty’s collection.

*Whitewashed: Missing from the glossy promo video are many of the less flattering facts about the Getty’s history — J. Paul Getty started the museum as a tax dodge, not because of some philanthropic instinct. He left many of his most important works, like the Landsdowne Herakles, outside in the elements for years. The world’s richest museum charges for $15 for parking, despite Getty’s explicit wish that his museum be free of charge for admission and parking. Worst of all: the governing metaphor of the site’s $275 million redesign is that of an archaeological excavation. Unmentioned is the irony that most of the objects on display were illegally ripped from just such an archaeological site. While it pretends to celebrate archaeology, the Villa is in many ways an affront to it.