The "Hot Pot" IV -- Irrefutable Evidence for a Good Provenance
The next day, Bob Hecht met me and some of my closest advisors -- Ted Rousseau, Ashton Hawkins, the in-house lawyer, Dietrich and John Buchanan, the registrar -- at my home. The gathering was tense. Hecht arrived, looking far jauntier than I had ever seen him.
I asked him if he had seen the New York Times morning blast, which reported that a certain Colonel Felice Mambour of the Carabinieri had identified a grave robber "who had delivered to Robert E. Hecht Jr. the million-dollar Greek vase." Colonel Mambour was quoted as saying that Hecht had lied to him three weeks earlier when he said that he "knew nothing about the vase."
"So, what about that, Bob?" I asked.
"It wasn't Mambour, it was one of his minions."
"Yeah, yeah, and what?"
"His man asked if I knew about some vase that had been dug up illegally last year near Cerveteri around November and I told him I hadn't, which I hadn't." Hecht was cool and unflustered.
"Bob, what about this other gem in the Times -- that Mambour questioned your motives when you suddenly dashed to Beirut when this shit began hitting the fan. According to the Colonel, you went to Lebanon to, I'll read from the Times article, 'gather evidence for a retrospective reconstruction of the history of the vase'."
"If that were true, then I would imagine Dikran would have had a pat story for Gage."
It was a clever point.
"Tom, Dikran kind of wanders at times. I think he was in British Intelligence during the war and he always seems a bit evasive -- part of the training, I guess."
That made sense.
"Bob, the main problem is that the Times all but states that because of the many inconsistencies, you and Sarrafian are lying. We claim that the pot was in a European collection since before the war; Sarrafian says he got it in 1920. We say the vase is intact, but now it's reported to be in 60 or more fragments. We said the owner has a valuable collection, but Sarrafian says he owns nothing of interest. We say Sarrafian got the cash, Sarrafian says that you got the bulk of our money."
"Blame me for these slight inaccuracies," Hecht said. "I mistakenly said it had been in a European collection before 1914 because I assumed that to be the case. I brought with me your way out. I have a signed affidavit by Dikran in the presence of witnesses who attest to his signature. It clears up everything."
The document read: "This is to confirm that the Attic red figure vase signed by Euphronios and consigned by me for sale in Zurich to Mr. Robert E. Hecht, Jr., in 1971 formed part of my father's collection and was acquired by him in the winter of 1920 in London in exchange for a collection of gold coins from the Near East. Moreover the above-mentioned crater was in fragments and Mr. Robert Hecht was warned that I was not responsible for any missing pieces." It was signed Feb. 19.
"I went to Beirut to have Dikran write this," Hecht said with a smile.
"Exactly what does this last sentence mean?" I asked. "It sounds like he was convinced his fragments didn't amount to a full krater."
"Not at all. Dikran has always felt that despite the large number of fragments he owned, they couldn't have comprised a full vase. You cannot look at a bunch of fragments and tell. You simply have to put them together totally and to do that you have to know what you're doing. Right, Dietrich?"
"I was the one who learned that the vase was complete. I then advised him to put a large price on it."
"But," I said, "doesn't his July letter already ask for a million? Isn't that a fatal inconsistency?"
"Not in the least," Hecht said coolly. "I had seen the pieces before that letter -- the thing had been in Switzerland for a while -- and, you see, I already suspected it was terrific. The higher the price he got, the better I'd do, and guess what, I'm still interested in making a living."
"Why does Sarrafian deny making a million less your commission?" I asked.
"In Lebanon it's dangerous if it get out you have just earned a large amount. Kidnappings are frequent there. In Beirut these days with the political and religious factions shooting at each other, it's very risky to be known as a successful man. Dikran prefers not to talk to anybody straight or to let on he's rich or to say that he owns anything other than some coins because he's afraid -- as is his European wife -- that something will happen. Besides, he likes to pull one's leg."
"Pulling legs didn't help with Nick Gage, and sure as shit won't help us!" I said acidly.
A colorful "Man-in-the-News" article about Sarrafian, which further eroded our case, accompanied the day's Times blast. For this, Sarrafian had told Gage, "All I remember is that the pieces contained paintings of old Greeks and a lot of inscriptions," and that some parts were missing.
Gage reported that Mr. Sarrafian "does not live like a millionaire." "He and his wife, who is Danish, occupy a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in an old building."
According to Gage, Sarrafian made the rounds of several bars every evening and was in bed by 8:30 pm. Gage observed, "This modest, almost apologetic self-portrait does not match the picture some acquaintances paint of Mr. Sarrafian. He was, they say, a highly sophisticated British intelligence agent in World War II, a man who parachuted behind German lines to act as a liaison with Tito's forces." Gage ended his article by quoting Sarrafian as saying he attended Oxford University and admitting, "But I was not very successful there and left without a degree."
Hecht explained, "Dikran is, by nature, a highly secretive and almost paranoid man. Being Armenian, he has seen or experienced much intolerance and has feared several times for his life. He's not the man who would want to talk to a Western journalist.
"But did he have our vase? And did he get payment?" I asked.
"He did. And I have proof -- a receipt for payment dated in October -- which I'll get for you." Hecht paused and looked over at our hostile faces with a forgiving smile.
All at once he had me thinking that I might have been wrong in believing that the Sarrafian story was a phony.
"Tom, what I say is true and irrefutable. The Times must be after you for something. If you want to give the vase back to me, I'll take it NOW ... and will give you a million one hundred thousand dollars for it, too."
Dietrich said quickly, "No, no, no! Tom, there's nothing we did against the law. The piece entered legally. It came from Switzerland."
"Yeah," I said. "But what about Gage's report that Mambour has identified the tombaroli?"
Gage had reported that three members of a gang of six tombaroli were infuriated that Hecht had received a million for "their" vase, since they got a mere $8,500. Gage stated flatly that in the late autumn of 1971 -- probably December -- a haul of ancient Greek objects were found in an Etruscan tomb near the towns of St. Angelo and Cerveteri, including our krater and "a Greek cup, smaller but perhaps more precious, and these were said to have been sold to an unidentified merchant for $200,000." It was also stated that Colonel Mambour "knew the name of the tombarolo who first handed the vase to Mr. Hecht."
Hearing that, Bob Hecht asked triumphantly, "How could it be that the Euphronios, which was in Zurich already in the summer of 1971, and specifically mentioned by my wife to you in early September, could have been found in Italy in December?"
"She didn't mention a vase," I reminded him. "Of course it did turn out to be the vase."
"If you look carefully into the facts and the chronology," Hecht said calmly, "you'll see that this tombarolo story has to be false."
The facts seemed unassailable. How could it be that the Euphronios vase we'd bought was already in Switzerland in July and already tipped off to me in September was also found by night diggers in Cervetri the following December? It couldn't be.
I suddenly became a believer. What the night diggers had unearthed had absolutely nothing to do with our great vase. We were clean and legal! I never would have believed it. But now I did. I felt an enormous weight suddenly lifted off my back. Fuck the New York Times.
It was time to break for lunch. Hecht asked me if he could use a "secure phone" to talk to his lawyer to find out more about the tombaroli.
I sneaked up to the door of the room where he was phoning and listened. Hecht spoke Italian, which I understood. What Hecht said to his lawyer surprised me. He asked about the tombaroli -- how many, their names. Over and over Hecht asked when the supposed illicit dig had taken place. "December? Mid December? Are you sure? You are absolutely sure? The dig was in December? Good! Have they photographs? No? Splendid!"
Needless to say, I never told anyone about his remarks.
Hecht emerged looking highly amused. He suddenly blurted out that he had to get to the airport, quickly, he was about to miss his plane to Zurich.
After Hecht and everyone else had left, I stayed at home for a while and extracted the pages out of my diary in which I had speculated about my suspicions that the krater had been found in an illegal dig and then smuggled out of Italy and burned them. I had no doubt that the trial by press might at some point turn into a real trial, and I did not want my idle speculations and fancies made available to the prosecution.
The next afternoon I met with Times correspondent David Shirey, I was feeling cocky. If Bob Hecht, who had so much to lose, wasn't upset, why should I be? The Italian authorities did not have photos of the illicit diggers mugging with bits and pieces of their -- our -- prize, so why should I worry? I told Shirey that the Times stories were "crazy" and that the Italian authorities were being "suckered." I emphasized over and over that a Euphronios known to be in Zurich in July and September 1971 -- OURS -- couldn't possibly be the one illegally dug up in December.
Soon the Times backed off from its fix that the krater had to have been smuggled: "Although some experts believe that the Metropolitan vase came from a recently plundered Etruscan tomb in Italy, there is yet no evidence to support this belief."
Yet, on Sunday, the 25th of February, the Times hit us with three long stories, dredging up every allegation published thus far. It was getting to be a case of "guilt by allegation." The front page belonged to Nicholas Gage, who identified the tombarolo who had found the vase. He was Armando Cenere, a 37-year-old "bootleg" archaeologist, who swore the Euphronios had been discovered with a magnificent second Euphronios.
Cenere was alarmingly precise about the circumstances. The date was December 1971. The tomb was at Santangelo, 25 miles north of Rome. It had taken eight days to clear the bursting tomb of its many pieces of pottery, which included the two Euphronioses and a statue of a winged sphinx. Cenere had been shown pieces as they were dug up -- he was a lookout -- and had seen one so striking he couldn't forget it, one decorated with "a figure of a man bleeding."
Cenere described the piece to Gage as "bigger than a man's hand," adding that it contained "almost the entire figure from the head to midway above the knees." I figured that Cenere had been shown a photo of our vase, presumably by Gage, though the story didn't say, and had instantly picked out the dead figure of Sarpedon.
[to be continued]
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.