The "Hot Pot" V -- Utterly Unexpected Good News
I issued a statement to the Times saying that I was dubious about the Armando Cenere story and mentioned once again that the restorer in Zurich had received the fragments in August 1971 -- and obviously, there's a great difference in climate in Italy between August and December. Besides, photographs of the krater had appeared dozens of times in the Italian press, and Cenere could easily have seen them. I found it odd that of the dozens of fragments the tombaroli had found, the only one Cenere had been shown and identified was the central figure of the principal side of the krater -- a bull's-eye.
Another point that made me suspicious of Cenere was that his description of the actual Sarpedon fragment was at odds with the dimensions of the real shard. The real fragment was far smaller than a man's hand.
Later we were told by a man with many contacts in Cerveteri that the Times reporters had dashed throughout Etruria with photographs of the krater, asking whether anybody had seen the piece or excavated it. The only person to respond was Cenere, an itinerant worker, who had his memory refreshed by a photograph showing the detail of Sarpedon.
The FBI and the New York police entered the investigation on behalf of the Italian government and interrogated Dietrich. We issued a statement that we'd be willing to cooperate with any legitimate inquiry, but when the Times asked to be supplied a second time with the photos showing all the breaks, we turned them down. The Times was far from an official investigative body.
The hot-pot affair bubbled along for the next four years, sometimes boiling furiously, sometimes simmering so gently that one might have thought the heat had waned. The Times coverage tailed off in May, and by the end of the affair the newspaper seemed so disininterested in the story that not a line appeared in the paper.
The Italian authorities, especially Colonel Mambour, kept issuing inflammatory statements about "positive proof" that our Euphronios had been "stolen" from Cerveteri. Four large pieces said to have come from the illegal dig were found by the carabinieri. The police turned them over to a highly respected professor by the name of Massimo Pallotino for his opinion, and he affirmed that they "belonged to a vase painted by Euphronios."
We told the Italians that we would remove the krater from exhibition, place it in a storeroom and allow the Italian experts -- and the carabinieri -- to have all the time they wanted to fit the errant shards in. We knew that whatever the pieces were, they could not possibly belong to our vase. They had been described by unidentified sources as showing a "flowered pattern closely resembling that on the vase's rim." Not a speck of the rim was missing on our vase.
The Italians didn't show.
One July day there was a startling letter written on brown paper, the color of a common paper bag, handwritten in purplish ink in a round, bold hand. The writer was Muriel Newman, a Chicagoan, unknown to me.
Mr. Hoving, I feel you should be sent this copy of a letter I sent to Dikran Sarrafian... Yours truly, Muriel Newman.
Dear Dikran Sarrafian,
Many years have passed since my husband and I visited you in Beirut (1964, I think). I hope you will remember us. Roberta Ellis introduced us. After having read and reread most of the publicity on the Euphronios calyx krater which the Metropolitan Museum in New York purchased, I feel it is my responsibility to tell you that I recall your showing me, when my husband and I were in your apartment in 1964, a large box containing, as you stated then, the shards of a Euphronios krater, which, as you said, your father purchased in 1920. If this bit of remembered information can be of any use to you now you may make use of it. I know you to be a man of integrity and hope that your good reputation is intact and will remain so. I saw Roberta Ellis recently, but have not been back to Beirut in these many years. Best regards to your family.
The name Roberta Ellis was familiar to me. She was the widow of Corson Ellis, who'd lived next door to my father and mother in Lake Forest in the late '20s and early '30s and had thrown an almost unending series of parties with my parents. How Roberta Ellis figured in this was another one of the bizarre mysteries surrounding the vase, but for now I let out a howl of delight.
I called Newman at once and asked if I could come out with my lawyers and obtain a statement in writing. She hesitated and told me she would be away for a while and suggested a time in late October or November. I desperately wanted to hear her full story and get her detailed account of the circumstances under which she had seen the fragments of the vase years before. It was no use pressuring the woman, and I cheerily told her we'd meet in the fall.
Chairman Douglas Dillon called for an in-depth, in-house investigation of the whole hot-pot affair by Ashton Hawkins and an outside lawyer. They went straightaway to Beirut with goals of getting Sarrafian to swear in writing to his tale, identify some Lebanese who had seen the krater, find out when and how and by whom the pieces got out of Beirut, discover where Sarrafian had kept the vase in Switzerland, obtain proof that Sarrafian actually got paid, and obtain from Fritz Buerki or anyone else in Switzerland statements about when the fragments had arrived in the country.
Sarrafian turned out to be a man, according to Hawkins, "with style, charm and a certain presence" -- definitely not the stumbling alcoholic described by Times reporter Nicholas Gage.
After considerable persuasion, the lawyers got the papers. Sarrafian was paid his money, according to one receipt, on Oct. 19, 1972 -- 3,411,000 Swiss francs (roughly $909,000). We had testimony from a certain Mr. Hanna Azzi, a legal administrative clerk, asserting that Sarrafian had shown him the vase fragments in the early '60s. Just who brought the fragments to Switzerland in 1966 remained a mystery. Buerki swore in an affidavit that he had received the fragments in the beginning of August 1971, and even better, we got an affidavit from the Swiss photographer in Basel, Dieter Widmer, to the effect that he had received "the fragments in an unrestored state" in early September. Sarrafian gave us the document proving he got paid on Oct. 25, 1971.
The accumulation of "evidence" was impressive. Whatever our Euphronios krater was, clearly it had nothing to do with Armando Cenere's piece.
Our findings were published in the Times by David Shirey, but the paper didn't seem very eager to present the complete information we had found.
The findings did have a dramatic effect in Italy. Once the courts received our packet of material from Hecht's lawyer, the warrant for his arrest was quashed. The judge revealed that all the data the Carabinieri had gathered had been "raw," taken without oath and without cross-examination.
Hallelujah! It seemed the affair of the "hot pot" was at last over.
I got my hands on confidential Carabinieri reports of the interrogation of the "bootle" digger and Bob Hecht. There was no doubt that a tomb had been clandestinely excavated in December 1971 near San Antonio di Cerveteri by six persons, all of whom were named and identified, including Cenere. Hecht had been identified by the tomb robbers as the purchaser of a number of the stolen pieces, including a stone sphinx and a lion which Hecht had allegedly shipped to America.
One report stated that no one intended to sign written declarations, for fear of reprisals, since Hecht was considered a "Mafioso." Naturally, I didn't show this information to Dillon or anyone else. For years I wondered why the New York Times hadn't searched out the Carabinieri reports.
In late November, the Italian prosecutor in charge of the case signed up experts to study the fragments that they believed to have come from our vase. We gave the court a sharp set of black and white pictures showing each crack and fissure. The experts ruled that the fragments found in Italy did not seem to belong.
The prosecutor threw out the finding and enlisted another pair of experts. Their conclusion was the same -- the four pieces could not fit.
We issued all this in a special trustees' report which the Times reported on with little enthusiasm. Nicholas Gage stubbornly defended his main point that what Cenere had described to him as the shard with the "bleeding man" was not all that different from the actual piece.
The report went out a bit too early to mention the astonishing information Muriel Newman relayed to us in late fall. The omission turned out to be a lucky break.
I met Mrs. Newman with our lawyers at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, and we grilled her for hours. Muriel Newman was an attractive widow in her 50s who had assembled an excellent collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings. She had gilt-edged credentials, being an active member of the 20th-century acquisitions committee at the Art Institute of Chicago. She told me that Roberta Ellis, who had just passed away, had cured herself of alcoholism and had won a Ph.D. in Near Eastern studies. She had conducted intimate tours for friends to places like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. In Beirut Roberta Ellis had suggested to the Newmans that they meet art dealer Dikran Sarrafian who, she said, owned an impressive collection of cylinder seals.
In the fall of 1964 the Newmans visited Sarrafian, who showed them a large number of cylinder seals, some of which were superior.
When Newman told Sarrafian that she really wanted seals for a decorative necklace, he'd laughed and said his were far too good for that and turned to some lesser decorative examples. She bought them and had had a necklace made, which she still cherished.
The Newmans had visited Dikran and his wife a second time. They were seated on the terrace when Sarrafian suddenly said he had something he wanted to show her. As her affidavit stated: "I followed Mr. Sarrafian into a small room where he opened a large box containing shards. He told me they were pieces of something called a krater -- an ancient Greek vase -- signed by a great artist named Euphronios, which his father, an art dealer, had acquired in the early '20s. The shards were large -- very -- and thick and extremely dirty. I have no recollection of any particular designs on them. Mr. Sarrafian explained that the painter of the vase was one of the important names in history and I always remembered the name, Euphronios. He wanted to know if I might be interested in purchasing them. I told him I wasn't."
Years later when the "hot pot" fracas was raging, Newman told her spellbound dinner guests that she knew something about the vase that no one on earth knew, something that would help indicate that the Met was right and the Times wrong.
Her guests were entranced. She asked them what she should do.
One, James Speyer, the assistant curator of 20th-century art at the Institute, advised her to keep quiet about the matter -- the Mafia might be involved. Another guest, Michael Arlen, the New Yorker writer, asked her how she would act if she knew a crime had been committed.
Why, she'd tell the authorities what she knew, of course.
Then, Arlen said, what would she do if she knew a crime had not been committed, but that somebody had been accused of committing one?
Again Newman replied that she would reveal what she knew.
"So, you will have to do the same," Arlen insisted, "in the case of Sarrafian. Like Sarrafian, I am Armenian and am sensitive to the persecutions Armenians had suffered over the centuries."
Arlen's arguments had led to Newman's letters to Sarrafian and me.
We dispatched Newman's testimony to Hecht's lawyers in Rome and to the Italian authorities. What she had sworn to was crucial. It was one thing to speculate that Hecht and Sarrafian had conspired to concoct a phony provenance for the krater and another to suspect Muriel Newman, an upstanding member of the Chicago art community, had been a part of the conspiracy. She had nothing to gain. She swore she had never met Hecht or any members of his family. She was able to prove that she had been in Beirut at the time she claimed from stamps in her passport.
In 1977 Dikran Sarrafian and his wife were killed in a mysterious car crash. Despite the Italian magistrate's all but giving up the case, in 1977, almost six years after I had first learned about the Euphronios, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau began a Rackets Bureau investigation into what he called the "conspiracy" lurking behind it. The assistant in charge of the bureau, Kenneth Conboy, subpoenaed the museum for all records on the vase. Though we were told a grand jury was probing the incident because of the recent deaths of the Sarrafians, my instincts told me that Morgenthau was after me. I contacted the late crack litigator, Arthur Liman, who took me as a client.
From the first words out of his mouth, I knew I had come to the right man. Just weeks before, he had heard Morgenthau "railing somewhat irrationally," he thought, "against you, about some of your populist programs. This may be the reason for this investigation. Morgenthau can be personally vindictive."
I believed Liman. I prepared a dossier on every possible link I had had with Hecht, even going back to my days in Rome when I had met him casually.
What Morgenthau's people didn't find out, until the last moment, was the existence of Muriel Newman. They were set to call Dietrich and me to the stand when they learned about her and frantically got her to New York. For two days she was interrogated by the pair of assistant district attorneys, Brown and Conboy. She described the experience as a "terrible ordeal," the point of which was to pressure her to change her story. Conboy asked her rudely if she weren't "looking for notoriety" in sending me her letters. She told him about her conversation with Michael Arlen.
Conboy asked a barrage of questions: How big was the box? What did you see? Were the shards grimy or clean? What kind of light was there? She repeated her story a number of times. Both prosecutors asked repeatedly about her affidavit for us, suggesting that, somehow, she had been forced to give it. Newman smiled her calm little smile and said she might be "petite" but was not easily pressured. At that she noticed that some of the members of the jury began to look away from her and fix an annoyed gaze at Conboy and Brown.
Towards the end of her six-hour ordeal, the grim subject of the death of Dikran Sarrafian and his wife came up, with one of the detectives on the case saying "Well, it's strange, $900,000 unaccounted for and this Sarrafian and his wife die two months later."
Repeatedly, the assistant district attorneys pressed Muriel Newman. "Change your testimony, it'll be all right." She looked at them benignly and said, "No, I can't. Not even if I wanted to. I can't change the truth."
At that, the members of the grand jury asked to go in camera. When they emerged shortly thereafter, they asked the case to be dismissed. It was. It was finally over, but what really had gone on, I wondered? One day in 1990, not long after an auction sale of some Greek vases from the Bunker Hunt collection, I suddenly figured out what had happened -- the really, really true story of the "hot pot."
[to be continued]
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for subscribing to the the artnet Auctions Newsletter