The "Hot Pot" VI -- The Old Switcheroo
Totally unknown to Dikran Sarrafian and to me, Hecht had two calyx kraters by Euphronios. One was the Met's vase and other Sarrafian's. Hecht had them both in Zurich when I went to see the vase. When I demanded proof of a sound, legal provenance, the agile Bob Hecht immediately decided to hand me the illegally excavated vase with the documents and the story belonging to Dikran's. Since Euphronios' works numbered just over two dozen and since anything by the genius hadn't been found in decades, no one would think that there could possibly be more than krater.
Dikran's fragmentary krater, signed by Euphronios, depicts the struggle between Hercules and Kychnos and is now in the collection of Leon Levy and Shelby White and has been on loan to the Met since 1999, exhibited several galleries away from the "hot pot."
The Levy-White krater is about 50 percent complete. The pieces of this Hercules and Kychnos fragmentary krater are such that they would easily fit into a shoe box. Enough of the fragments have been pieced together to be able to determine the diameter and height. It was sold in June 1990 in the Bunker Hunt sale of Greek and Roman antiquities … and fetched $1.65 million. In that sale was also the splendid cup by Euphronios with Sarpedon, the very one that Hecht had shown me and Bothmer in a photo in February 1973.
I know that both the cup and the Hercules krater were sold to Bunker Hunt by Bruce McNall, a former antiquities and coin dealer and the former owner of the L.A. Kings hockey team. McNall is now serving time in a Federal prison for massive financial fraud.
In the mid-1970s, Bruce McNall was Robert Hecht's secret United States partner. Hecht introduced me to McNall as such. Together in my office at the Met they both boasted to me of their partnership. Even though Hecht told me in Zurich he wasn't interested in vases, the fact is, he was. In the late '60s and early '70s he was conducting a bustling business almost exclusively in vases. He sold a fragmentary Euphronios krater -- the third one -- to Munich's Antikensammlung in 1970 for a quarter million and set a new high-price level. It seems likely that around the time he sold that Euphronios to Munich, Hecht recalled Sarrafian talking about a fragmentary vase by Euphronios and persuaded him to let him sell it. Sarrafian probably shipped off the shards to Hecht in July 1971.
Hecht recognized that it was even more important than the Munich piece. Sarrafian's was the fragmentary krater received by the photographer Widmer in September 1971 that was photographed after the pieces had been stuck together temporarily with tape -- not something one could have done with a complete, far heavier, krater.
Knowing that Bothmer had yearned for a Euphronios, Hecht had his wife, Elizabeth, alert me about Sarrafian's in the most general terms. Sarrafian's would be one of the finest on earth.
Then a miracle took place.
The Etruscan tomb near San Antonio di Cerveteri filled with Greek treasures, including the Euphronios cup, the complete Euphronios krater, a sphinx and a lion, was discovered in December 1971 and the contents bought by Hecht. The krater was restored by Buerki starting around January 1972. Hecht's jubilant letter to Bothmer in February 1972 was actually about this miraculously complete vase, not the handsome, valuable fragmentary Sarrafian Euphronios that had generated Elizabeth Hecht's call. When, in Zurich, I insisted that Hecht back up his vase with a clean provenance and title, he adroitly substituted Sarrafian's fine fragments -- after all, it was a bona fide krater. That is, of course, why Hecht added that odd P.S. to his upbeat letter to me on June 29, days after I had been in Zurich, that he was happy I had seen and liked what his wife had described to me on the phone in September 1971.
This two-krater theory explains all the confusion, the ambiguities, the contradictions. It clarifies why Sarrafian kept insisting that his vase was not complete and that he had not gotten as much money as Bob Hecht -- he hadn't, but did pretty well on the Hunt-Levy-White one.
Hecht no doubt only later told him about the switch -- when the controversy began and the question of who got what amount of money arose. The existence of the second krater also leaves intact the testimony of all the people -- especially Newman -- who swore Sarrafian had talked about a vase inscribed with the name Euphronios. He had. It explains why the Italians were convinced that a tomb had been broken into. It had. The second vase and the switched documents and stories explains why we kept sticking to our tale that we had clear provenance and title and why we got rather paranoid about the New York Times and why, in its turn, the Times got furious at us because of our "lies and deceptions." And, finally, the second krater explains why I had started off thinking that the old Beirut ploy was nonsense and ended up by being convinced that Sarrafian had to have owned the Euphronios -- or, more accurately, a Euphronios.
Last December I bumped into Bob Hecht at the opening of the Hermitage Rooms in London's Somerset House. I asked him directly if he'd switched Sarrafian's documents onto the Met's vase.
He turned his face to the side after looking at me intently and said. "Of course."
In recent months it has been reported that the Italian authorities have renewed their investigations of the Met's Euphronios and might attempt to pressure the museum to hand it back.
Should it go back to Italy? Hell, no. Despite our suspicions, we bought it in good faith and it arrived legally to U.S. customs. There's nothing the Italians can do about it or should.
And, anyway, it's an art gem of New York City.
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.