Tag Archives: Walters Art Museum

Fall Book Tour wraps up after 14 events in 15 days. VIDEO: Chasing Aphrodite at UPenn.

We’ve just wrapped up our fall book tour — 14 events in about 15 days.

Thanks to everyone who came out to learn about museums and the illicit antiquities trade. And our sincere gratitude to our hosts at Rutgers, Princeton, UPenn Museum, UPenn Law School, Villanova Law School, NYU, The National Arts Club, The Harvard Club of NYC, Cardozo Law School, AIA, SAFE, The Walters Museum of Art, Chapman University and Central Michigan University.

Keep an eye on our events page for more events coming soon. If you’re interested in hosting an event near you, please contact us at ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com.

For those who missed us, here’s a video of our presentation at the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where we were introduced by Dr. Richard Leventhal:

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Looted Antiquities at the Walters Art Museum?

In anticipation of our event at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore on Sat, Oct 29th at 2pm, we took a look at the museum’s wonderful collection of ancient art. It appears to have dozens of objects purchased from dealers with ties to the black market.

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

Most prominent of those dealers is Robert Hecht, a 92 year-old Baltimore native and heir to the Hecht department store chain. Hecht is currently on trial in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted antiquities over his nearly six decades as a prominent dealer based in Paris and New York. He has been well-known for trafficking in looted antiquities since 1972, when he sold the Metropolitan Museum of Art its famous Euphronios krater, which was returned to Italy. In his handwritten memoir, seized by Italian authorities in 2001, Hecht recounts a long career of buying looted objects from Italian middlemen and selling them to American museums.

Among the more than a dozen pieces at the Walters purchased from Hecht is this griffin “protome,” which the Walters bought directly from the dealer in 1999. It is said to be Greek from 640 BC.

In his memoir, Hecht describes buying griffin protomes from his “faithful purveyor” Giacomo Medici, the Italian dealer who has been convicted of being a key middleman in Italy’s illicit antiquities trade. It’s not clear if the Walters’ protome is among those Hecht mentioned.

We asked Gary Vikan, museum director since 1994, about the protome and other Hecht objects in the collection.

“Most of the Hecht stuff goes back a long way,” Vikan said in an email. “The protome came from an old collection, said Bob [Hecht], and our file does not reveal the name, and the curator on hand at the time cannot fill in the name with her memory. The purchase was consistent with the AAMD code of ethics as it then existed, and Bob Hecht did not carry the baggage then that he does now.”

We’re fond of Vikan, but we find his answer on this one a bit troubling. After all, it was Vikan who a decade before the griffon acquisition had testified as a “due diligence” expert in the Peg Goldberg case involving looted Cypriot mosaics. In the case, Vikan said Goldberg had ignored “sirens blaring and red flags waving” — clear signs of looting when she purchased the mosaics. This appears to be what Vikan did in 1999 when approving the acquisition of the griffon from Hecht. The object has no documented ownership history beyond Hecht, who was known since the 1970s to invent bogus stories claiming that recently looted objects came from “old collections.”

Hecht was also the source of several remarkable Byzantine floor tiles at the Walters, including this one depicting Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch, which was purchased from Hecht in 1950s. According to the Walters’ website, Hecht acquired them directly from a man in Turkey.

Another man who regularly supplied the Walters was Nicolas Koutoulakis, a prominent dealer who owned the Paris gallery Segredakis. His named appears in the “org chart” of the illicit antiquities trade found by Italian police in the 1990s with a direct link to Hecht.

Greek drinking cup purchased from Nicolas Koutoulakis.

Many of the Hecht and Koutoulakis objects in question — though not the griffons — were purchased by the Walters before 1970, the date of the UNESCO accord on cultural patrimony which most museums and archaeologists today accept as bright ethical line. But if the Hecht and Koutoulakis objects were looted from Italy or Greece, as is reasonable to suspect, they could be considered stolen property under US law, and the Walters would not hold clear title to them.

The Walters’ policy suggests that the museum will proactively investigate such objects: “If the Museum, as a result of its continuing research, gains information that establishes another party’s right to ownership of a work, the Museum will bring this information to the attention of the party, and if the case warrants, initiate the return of the work to that party, as has been done in the past.”

When we asked Vikan what he thought should be done with such objects, his answer was somewhat glib: “Put ’em out there!” We applaud the Waters for its transparency with provenance information — many museums do not post an object’s ownership history online. But in our view, putting suspect antiquities on display is not the same as a proactive investigation or notification of Italian or Greek authorities.

There’s no easy answer for how to handle the thousands of suspect objects still in American museum collections today. But waiting for Italian authorities to knock on your door has not always worked out well for other museums.

We look forward to exploring these issues with Gary and former Getty antiquities curator Arthur Houghton on Sat at 2pm.

Gary Vikan on Moving Museums Beyond Ownership

In February 2006, shortly after Getty Trust CEO Barry Munitz was forced to resign in the wake of an LA Times expose on his personal excesses with Getty money, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman weighed in with an analysis of the institution’s core problem.

Barry Munitz, former CEO of the Getty Trust

“The Getty, at staggering cost and at little or no obvious benefit to the general public, directed millions to new programs,” Kimmelman wrote, referring to the Trust’s investments in conservation, research and education. Instead, Kimmelman argued the Getty should do what the Met had done a century earlier: spends its money buying A-list objects with the hope that, over time, the museum could catch up with the world’s great collections.

Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters Museum in Baltimore, read the piece and immediately recalled a conversation he had had with Munitz a few years earlier. During a seminar at the Trust, the profligate CEO had proposed a surprising new direction for the Getty, one that flew in the face of critics like Kimmelman:  rather than spending vast amounts buying a handful of masterpieces, why not bring them to the Getty on loan, leveraging the Getty’s conservation expertise for a chance to display world-class art.

Gary Vikan, Director of the Walters Museum

This ” “simple and provocative” idea — moving the museum beyond ownership — stuck with Vikan, and he expanded on it in a rebuttal to Kimmelman that was never published. Here are excerpts of Vikan’s letter, whose ideas have taken on new relevance in the wake of the antiquities controversy recounted in our book:

“Why shouldn’t the Getty, with its spectacular wealth, its enormous prominence among the world’s art centers, and its relative ‘institutional youth,’ challenge the very notion of art acquisition and ownership?” Vikan asked. Such a move would “cut to the heart of the disequilibrium” between artifact-rich but cash poor nations like Italy and the wealthy young museums like the Getty, which have the expertise to conserve works and the burning desire to show them.

Museums “can offer an art experience, with its associated learning and scholarship, without having to own the work of art.” Vikan proposed replacing many acquisitions with a system of “innovative long-term loans derived from partnerships across the divide that separates the cash-rich/art poor from the cash-poor/art rich.”

“Such a visionary reordering of Getty Museum priorities would not only create a shining new model for art museums worldwide, it would remove a troublesome roadblock that would almost immediately open up at least two great opportunities. First would be the the opportunity to form a much stronger, more synergistic community of purpose among the four programmatic components of the Getty Trust under a single, education-centered mission — one wherein the Museum becomes at once the laboratory and showcase for the aspirations and achievements of all that the Getty Trust undertakes….Second would be the opportunity for the Getty Trust to play a leadership role in forging a community of purpose among museums internationally, and in establishing new, transparent models of mutually beneficial partnership….”

“This,” Vikan concluded, “is a vision that could help to re-shape the entire world community of art museums in the 21st century.”

Vikan and Munitz did not invent this vision — others had made similar proposals, notably Max Anderson of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Wolf-Dieter Heilmeyer of the Berlin Museums. Ironically, former Getty curator Marion True emerged as the the greatest champion of the idea before her indictment by Italy. (See our Chap 8.) Still, the vision articulated by Vikan and others was strikingly audacious:  a rethinking of centuries of collecting practices.

Remarkably, five years later, it is a vision that appears more and more like reality, especially at the Getty. A year after Vikan’s letter, the Getty ended its decade-long controversy with Italy over its purchase of looted antiquities and forged an agreement that embraces the key ideas in Vikan’s letter. Subsequent agreements were also struck with the National Archaeological Museum in Florence and the autonomous region of Sicily. In the end, the Getty lost 40 of its most prized antiquities, but has begun receiving on loan prized masterpieces from Italy, some of which had never before left Italy.

Here are a few (click the images for details on the loan):

Chimaera of Arezzo

Agrigento Youth

The Gela Krater

Statue of Ephebe from Pompei

Apollo from Pompei

Mozia Charioteer (coming Spring 2012)

To be sure, the Getty continues to purchase art, and — cautiously — antiquities. But with the growing roster of loans and collaboration, the historically underachieving Getty has also begun to look something like that 21st Century museum that Vikan envisioned. And the Trust’s new CEO Jim Cuno has already signaled that he hopes to continue in this direction.

As we wrote in the epilogue of Chasing Aphrodite: “The new era…is now within sight. It is one in which museums and countries alike will look beyond questions of ownership and embrace, as True said, the “sharing of cultural properties, rather than their exploitation as commodities.”

What are other examples of museums moving beyond ownership? Leave a comment below and we’ll raise them Baltimore, where we’ll be speaking with Vikan at the Walters Museum on October 29th at 2pm. Details here.