Shadows in a Tomb

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK // The man accused of stripping Italy of precious antiquities and selling them on the world art market for millions of dollars now shuffles along East 69th Street by himself, his head bowed, and seems as threatening as a glass of warm milk.

He's 87 years old and can barely open a door without assistance. But Italian authorities say this man -- Robert E. Hecht Jr., a Baltimore native whose great-grandfather founded the department store that bears his name -- was for decades at the center of a criminal ring that dug antiquities from Italian soil and sold them to museums and collectors around the world.

Hecht, for his part, seems to find it all a bit amusing.

In a recent interview at the Union Club on Park Avenue, Hecht, dressed neatly in a gray suit, blue-and-pink striped shirt and red tie, began to tell his life story: He studied art and archaeology at the University of Zurich, went to Rome on a fellowship and then, he said wryly, "I went the way of all evil."

He was kidding, but the Italians aren't. Hecht is on trial in Rome for trafficking in looted antiquities. He could be fined severely if convicted, though he is too old to face jail time. Because of his age, he has not been required to attend every day of the trial, which started last November and could run for another year.

But Hecht, who has pleaded innocent, has made occasional appearances at the courthouse in Rome, most recently last month, when he reportedly sang an aria from Verdi's La Traviata to the assembled journalists.

Meanwhile, Hecht has been splitting his time between his permanent home in Paris - where he has lived since he was barred from Italy in the 1970s - and an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

He meets with friends, visits museums - some of which still display objects of questionable provenance that he sold them over the years - and waves off his critics.

"There is no concrete proof that these things were illegally excavated," Hecht said of the pieces the Italians claim were wrongfully removed from their country, "and if they were, they've been available to the world - both for admirers of beauty and scholars."

Hecht is a man who has seen the world pass him by. In the 1950s, shortly after his arrival in Italy, he bought antiquities on the streets of Rome.

No one had a problem with it. The shops, Hecht said, would happily ship the ancient cups, coins and statues out of the country if you couldn't take them home yourself.

Now, Hecht finds himself on trial for allegedly doing the very things that were accepted practice half a century ago.

"He lived long enough to see his livelihood not only eclipsed, but also impugned," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which is known for its antiquities collection and which bought several pieces from Hecht in the 1950s. "This guy is sort of the personification of the sea change."

Made good contacts

It was Hecht's great-grandfather, Samuel Hecht, who founded a furniture store in Fells Point in 1857 that would become a regional retailing giant. Robert Hecht's grandfather and father both worked for the family business, but Hecht decided it wasn't for him.

"My father said do what you want," Hecht said. So he did. Growing up in Baltimore, he went to Friends School, where he played lacrosse, and then studied classics at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Hecht graduated in 1941 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in January 1942.

His ship escorted merchant vessels in the Atlantic, guarding them against attacks from German subs. After the war, Hecht, who had taken German in school, briefly served as an interpreter for war crimes investigations. He had also studied Latin and Greek - languages that would earn him some status in the world of art dealing.

Hecht landed in Rome in the late 1940s, first for a fellowship and then to stay. Asked what drew him there, he mentioned "the fun of reading Plautus," a 2nd-century B.C. Roman playwright.

Displaying his dry wit, Hecht added that at the time, "The primary occupation in Italy was eating spaghetti."

But Hecht's primary occupation quickly became buying and selling antiquities. He had an eye for the kind of objects that would interest museums and collectors, and he had the wit, charm and education to ingratiate himself with the right people.

"He had a good classical education, and he was early in the field and therefore he made a lot of good contacts," said Peter Watson, author of The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, published in May. He points out that Hecht knew the right people at the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

"He is a gregarious man, obviously, with a lot of interpersonal skills," Watson said in a phone interview from London. "And he was adept at picking things up for very little and selling them for quite a lot."

The work could be lucrative. Hecht once bought a set of Etruscan silver chariot fixtures from an Italian middleman for $63,000, according to Hecht's unpublished memoir, which Watson quotes in his book.

Hecht turned around and sold the pieces to the Copenhagen Museum for $240,000.

But Hecht ran into trouble on occasion. In 1961, he was charged in Rome with receiving stolen property in connection with his antiquities trade. He was acquitted. In 1963, according to Watson's book, his residency permit was revoked on the suspicion that he was providing electric saws to tomb robbers who were stripping Italy of its antiquities.

Hecht eventually was allowed back into Italy, but he ran into more trouble in Turkey.

On a 1962 flight from Izmir to Istanbul, he took out some ancient gold coins to examine them. A stewardess noticed the coins and told the pilot, who informed officials on the ground. When the plane landed, Hecht was arrested and the coins were seized.

The Turks discovered the coins had been illegally excavated, Watson wrote, and Hecht was barred from the country.

By the 1970s, the freewheeling antiquities trade was in its twilight.

Countries that, in the wake of World War II, had not placed much value on their pasts began to see their worth - both in terms of cultural heritage and as a tourist attraction.

In 1979, Italy ratified a United Nations convention that made it illegal to remove cultural property without permission from the country of origin. The U.S. Congress ratified the same convention in 1983.

"The world has systematically changed around him," Watson said, "and he and his colleagues haven't changed with it."

But before the art world changed completely, Hecht had at least one big sale left in him.

Spoils of the tomb

The Euphronios vase sits on a pedestal encased in thick plastic in the ancient Greek art section of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The vase is a seven-gallon bowl, used for mixing wine and water. In shades of orange, red and brown, it depicts young Greeks preparing for battle and the bloodied body of Sarpedon, son of Zeus, being transported for burial.

The Met's audio tour describes the vase as a "majestic" object that is "quite simply one of the finest Greek vases anywhere." Painted by the artist Euphronios, it dates from 515 B.C. The sign underneath it - "Lent by the Republic of Italy" - is of a more recent vintage.

Hecht sold the vase to the Met in 1972 for $1 million - an astonishing price at the time and far more than anyone had ever paid for an antiquity. The sale caused an uproar from archaeologists who believed it was looted. The Met said the vase had been in a private collection in England since World War I.

The story didn't hold up to scrutiny. The New York Times investigated and reported evidence that the vase had been unearthed in 1971, northwest of Rome, by the tombaroli, or tomb robbers.

But the Met held onto the piece, saying it needed irrefutable proof it had been looted. The Italians began their own investigation, and life became difficult for Hecht in his adopted home. He went into hiding, according to news reports at the time, and eventually landed in Paris in the mid-1970s. He continued his trade there, and in time, the furor passed.

In the last few years, however, Italy has found new evidence that the vase was looted. At the same time, museums have come to realize that their old rules on antiquity acquisition - basically, to ask few questions and look the other way - were too lax. Now, they say, looting is so widespread they must assume items have been stolen unless they come with a spotless provenance.

Earlier this year, the Met announced it was returning the Euphronios vase to Italy, along with 20 other antiquities with disputed histories. Italy will allow the Met to keep the vase on display until 2008, and after that Italy will lend the Met items of equal value.

In a statement in February, Met director Philippe de Montebello said, "This is the appropriate solution to a complex problem, which redresses past improprieties in the acquisitions process."

Hecht has shrugged off the episode. "We live in a democracy," he said, "and every man in it has the liberty to do what he thinks best." But asked how museums should act when told a piece in their collection might be looted, he suggested a simple response: "Go to hell."

'One of the founders'

Hecht's current troubles began in 1995, when authorities raided a Geneva warehouse connected to a shady art dealer and found dozens of antiquities - vases, statues, bronzes, candelabra, frescoes, mosaics and jewelry - as well as more than 4,000 snapshots of other antiquities. Many of the antiquities in the photos were covered in dirt, suggesting that they had recently been dug out of the ground.

The warehouse belonged to Giacomo Medici, a dealer who over the years had sold thousands of objects to museums and collectors. Italian authorities believe he bought those objects from tomb robbers and they had been building a case against him for years, according to an investigation of the antiquities trade published last year by the Los Angeles Times.

Medici and Hecht were closely connected. They had first met in 1968 in Rome, and Hecht writes in his memoir that "GM became a faithful purveyor." Hecht would buy objects from Medici, concoct a background for them and put them on the market, the L.A. Times reported.

Hecht says he never knowingly bought or sold looted antiquities.

Medici eventually was put on trial in Italy for trafficking in looted antiquities and last year he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The judge's 659-page verdict also touched on Hecht, calling him "one of the founders of the conspiracy that was the subject of this trial" and "the soul and director of almost all the operations," according to Watson's book.

The trials of Medici and Hecht have opened a window into the shadowy world of antiquity dealing and called into question the aggressive and sometimes unsavory tactics used by museums to stock their collections. They have also prompted a period of soul-searching among museum directors, who have tightened their acquisition policies.

According to the Times, Italian investigators have identified more than 100 allegedly looted antiquities that are now held by six U.S. museums - the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Met, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Toledo Museum of Art and the Princeton University Art Museum.

Some of those pieces are connected to Hecht, but he says he bought antiquities only in Switzerland, Germany or Belgium - not in Italy - and that on the roughly 10 occasions in which he learned that something he'd bought had been looted, he returned it.

He shakes his head at suggestions that his half-century in the antiquities trade was filled with swashbuckling adventures.

"I think it was very prosaic," he said, picking at a chicken potpie over lunch in New York. "I was offered something and either I bought it or not. If I bought it, I tried to sell it. One question is, 'Can you make a profit?' The other is, 'Are you turned on by the beauty of the object?' "

He now disavows his own unpublished memoir, which details the items he bought and sold over the years and was seized in a 2001 raid of his Paris apartment. The memoir has been used as evidence in both Medici's and Hecht's trials. But Hecht says he fabricated much of it to make it attractive to publishers.

"If you want to sell a book, you gotta give juicy stories," he said.

Indeed, his life could have been much more ordinary. He could have settled into the family business, but he's never expressed interest in that. Hecht is surprisingly unsentimental about the coming demise of the store that bears his name. Because of a merger, all Hecht's stores will be closed or converted to Macy's later this year.

"It hasn't meant anything to me since it became a public company in 1945," he said.

Hecht, who has been married twice and has two daughters, admits the trial has hurt his reputation. Museums will no longer buy from him, he said, though some private collectors still do. The trial could also hurt the price of antiquities, because museums are now wary of them. But that won't stop the looting, Hecht said.

"This action - it might lower the prices of antiquities - but if a peasant can make more by going out and digging something up than a day's labor, he's not gonna stop," he said. "The only way they're going to stop illegal excavation is by patrolling the areas" where items are dug up.

Archaeologists say objects that are illegally excavated, given fake provenances and then sold are of little historical value because they are removed from their context. But Hecht argues that, because of the Italian crackdown, antiquities will be hidden in collectors' living rooms, off limits to scholars and the public.

The terra cotta pieces that Hecht sold to the Walters Art Gallery in 1955 were reassembled into a screen, which is displayed in the medieval gallery. Vikan, the museum director, said the museum knows the provenance of the pieces and that they are clean.

"I don't think there's a museum in this country that doesn't have something that Bob Hecht sold them," Vikan said. "In some respects, I think it's absolutely fair to say that, thanks to Bob Hecht, there are many of us in this world who are able to see works of art that reflect our shared heritage."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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