Hot Pot Part II -- Unexpectedly, the Money Source Opens Up
I got a cold beer, turned and stared at the vase and felt like I'd been punched in the gut. It was a punch of sheer pleasure.
I have a quickie check-list for scoping out the authenticity and quality of any work of art and the first item is to write down the instant, flashing impression. Here I scribbled, "great monument of superb drawing, no mere vase."
I was overwhelmed by the scale and elegance of the two winged figures of Sleep and Death bending over Sarpedon. Behind them were two stately warriors. The naked body of Sarpedon these "angels" were gently lifting was immense. Dark red blood spurted from several wounds. He'd died hard. His eyes were clamped shut, his teeth -- and I could count them despite their minute size -- were clenched in his last agony. No figure of Christ on the cross I'd ever seen matched this image.
I walked around the vase marveling at its bulk. Its shape was stunningly architectonic from the briskly upturned handles to the subtle curvature of the sides and the firm supporting thrust from the round pedestal. It was more a diminutive building than a pot. As tense and pulsating as Bramante's little Temple on the Janiculum in Rome, the symbol of the early Renaissance -- God, Bramante would have loved Euxitheos!
The colors -- far from your basic black and red -- were magically varied, ranging from ochres, soft browns and reds of a multiple hue to pinks for the inscriptions. They seemed hard as enamel on a jet blue-black ground of such depth and luster that it seemed like a field of molten, glistening coal. The black outlines looked like thick, steely jet-black wires welded into place -- little three-dimensional fences.
I sat down and said, "Sublime!" No sense in acting Mr. Cool Haggler. Dietrich was dumbstruck. Ted Rousseau seemed wary and pursed his lips in an engaging pout of skepticism. What's with him, I wondered?
The three of us circled the thing for some time as Bothmer carried on in a monotone about Homer's Odyssey and Sarpedon being hefted by the twins Sleep and Death back to his homeland, Lycia. Behind Sarpedon was the god Hermes. The warriors behind Sleep and Death were Laodames and Hippolitos. On the reverse a group of warriors -- not from Homer -- were donning armor and each guy was identified by an inscription. One said, "Leagros is beautiful." That dated the Euphronios to, say, 520-510 BC, von Bothmer told us, because at the time Leagros was considered the handsomest man in Greece. A matinee idol dated the work, I had to chuckle.
I was only half-listening. I fixed my gaze on the incredible Prince Sarpedon. He is a giant, lavishly muscled, yet slim as a dancer. The drawing of his body is anatomically sophisticated as a study by the divine Leonardo. The limp hands are perfect and poignant.
The drawing of the ensemble was literally the finest I'd ever seen. One vast, unhesitating line sped from the wing of Sleep through his arm was, alone, an act of artistic genius. And there were dozens of such pure and daring strokes -- all done without the artist seeing where his instrument was going. But there wasn't an iota of stiffness in that semi-blindness. The strokes were all super-bravura, high voltage, virtually explosive. How HAD Euphronios gotten every tangent, every overlap, every junction, every loop and whorl just right? Not even Albrecht Dürer or Rembrandt had equaled this tour-de-force in their most complex engravings.
This was one hot, universally spectacular work that I just knew would grow forever. Hell, the thought crossed my mind that this single piece might just bring about a rewriting of the art history of Greece.
The first nanosecond I'd looked at the vase, I vowed to get it. I stood there in the warm sun in my shirtsleeves, sucking a beer, crusty with lack of sleep, but my mind and eyes were as alive as they'd ever been. This was the single most perfect and powerful work of art of its size that I had ever encountered.
As "BVDs" chattered on, I was thinking how to get the money for this treasure. I'd exhausted the coffers with many other acquisitions and the trustees seemed in no mood for coughing up hundreds of thousands. How much dough would I need? How to deal with its obviously illicit provenance?
We cut for lunch, leaving Buerki to his bone yard of busted-up antiquities to stick together. Hecht took us to a rather grim fast-food joint, Movenpick. I'd have preferred something grand, I wanted to celebrate, but the mundane joint was actually better, for now the tough negotiating would begin.
"Tom, I make it a habit to adjust prices to the ardor of the prospective client. Your word, 'sublime' makes me come down from a million five to a million three."
I heard Ted Rousseau grunt. Von Bothmer's eyes widened. I gave Bob Hecht a smile combining, I hoped, sadness and a smidgeon of contempt.
"Bob, do we get Green Stamps?"
He grinned and looked at me sideways. I was delighted to see that he was uncomfortable. I can take this guy, I thought.
"Tom, why not one point three? Eight hundred and fifty in cash and the rest in cast-off, uh, what do you call them 'deaccessioned' objects (but NO vases, sculptures is what I want, not being much into vases.) I'd like a firm commitment by September. Life is too short. If you want to make the deal here and now, okay. Gotta registered check on you?"
"Bob, I want the Euphronios -- it's positively the finest work I've even been offered and maybe even seen. But one point three million, no. It isn't worth it. This is my offer -- in a week a registered check for eight fifty. Just figure out how much you'd lose in interest on that healthy figure by waiting for September for the higher amount."
Ted Rousseau's normally radiantly handsome face began to cloud over and sour. I knew he was not at all taken with the krater. On the way to Movenpick he'd muttered only, "interesting experience." I loved the man, but now was the time to ignore him.
"I'd do that in a second," Hecht said with a sigh. "Only, I'm not the only person in this deal. I'm on commission -- ten percent -- and the owner insists on something over a million."
What a crock, I thought!
I went into my standard poverty act, telling Hecht how depleted were the museum's purchase funds, how many debts still were hanging from the purchase a year before of a world-record painting by Diego Velazquez.
Hecht cut in and flabbergasted me, "I hear from numismatic buddies that you're thinking of selling here in Zurich the Durkee and Ward collections of ancient coins. Why not swap? I'll give you the vase, PLUS three hundred and fifty in cash."
I almost cried out, I was so surprised. My GOD the fucker had just solved my money problems! He didn't know what he'd done and neither did Rousseau or von Bothmer. I kept my face neutral-bland with a touch of stupidity. I was so excited I thought I might cheer out loud.
I excused myself to find the toilet. Had to be a phone in the back. There was. It was mid-morning in New York. I hastily called the in-house lawyer of the museum who was inches from closing a deal to consign the Met's Durkee and Ward collections of gold Greek and Roman coins to a Zurich numismatic auction firm. The latest estimate had been between $750,000 and a million and possibly as high as a million and a quarter, less a hefty commission.
"Do not, repeat DO NOT, make any deal with these Swiss. Don't talk to them. Don't take their calls. Get your office to say you're sick. Why? Don't worry about it."
My next call was to the chairman of Sotheby's auction house in London, Peter Wilson. He got on right away and I described succinctly the nature of the two collections and told him what the Swiss firm had offered.
"Peter, what can you give me? In advance. I want a lot. I gotta know fast. I'll call back in a half hour. This is key."
"Thirty minutes will be more than enough."
I returned to the table. We started in on the next problem -- the sticky provenance.
"Bob, since the UNESCO draft treaty of 1970, which I worked on, it's impossible for respectable museums like the Met to entertain collecting a smuggled thing swept up in some night dig. I gotta have hard documents.
"You shall, you shall. This didn't come from some illegal dig, which I deplore, being an honest dealer. My Finnish grandfather has owned this vase for 75 years. Ha, ha. Really, the owner has had it -- in pieces -- since before WWI, around 1914."
I held back a derisive snort.
"Dikran Sarrafian. He's an old antiquities dealer in Beirut."
Von Bothmer shrugged.
"Come on, Bob, the krater couldn't have come from LEBANON!"
"Certainly not. Dikran inherited it from his father who got it in... exchange... for a number of gold coins in London back around 1914 or so."
I tried not to laugh out loud. The gold coin story was Bob's way of referring to our coins. Beirut was the laundered provenance for any antiquity smuggled out of Greece, Italy or Turkey. Shopworn. I was about to ask him, "Why not the ancient Gessler Collection from Zurich?" but didn't.
He spun what I took as an imaginative tale about this Dikran Sarrafian keeping the vase pieces in a shoebox. Because of the increasing danger of staying in Beirut, Dikran had opted to go to New South Wales and had consigned the pieces of his krater to Hecht. Dikran knew, Hecht said, the market for Greek vases and depending on how much of a complete krater he had (he claimed he didn't know) he was asking anywhere from one million five to two million.
If this guy was a dealer in antiquities, I instantly thought, how could he NOT have known if it were intact or only 50 percent complete. I figured that Sarrafian was merely a beard for Hecht.
"He knew it was something grand," Hecht added. "He didn't know the exact size or the precise market value. I was the one who advised him to hold out for an Impressionist painting price. Of course when I saw what he had -- this absolutely flawless, totally intact masterpiece, then…."
Gimme a break, I thought. It was time to call Peter Wilson. I excused myself again.
"Tom, Peter here. Very exciting. We all are intrigued to know how you might have learned that we were hoping to plunge deeply into the coin territory. My offer is cash in advance of one point five millions -- uh, dollars, that is -- plus 84 percent of all gross receipts in excess of $2 million at the auction. Think it over and do come to London soon."
"Peter, I'll be there tomorrow. I'm sure my chairman and my board will approve." I danced a jig back to the table.
"Bob, my offer is not a penny over a million. Eight fifty in cash and the rest in trade. Sculptures which Dietrich can select."
"I'll consult with Dikran. Yet I don't believe he'll want to move below one point three."
"Bob, let me heavily underline my position on this provenance stuff. I've set up a new acquisitions procedure. The curators must verify in writing the provenance of any antique piece. If nothing is known, then we send photos and detailed info about the thing to all countries where it could have been found -- in this case, Greece and Italy. If the provenance is clear and unquestioned, we don't do that. I need anything Sarrafian can come up with as proof of this story. I also insist upon proof that Sarrafian has received his share of the cash if we can ever agree on a price."
He smiled and looked quickly away. Soon we parted company.
That evening I called my chairman who approved playing off Sotheby's and the Swiss numismatic auction firm. I flew to London the next morning and the "auction" took ten minutes with Sotheby's winning hands down. Frankly, I never called the Swiss guys. The museum would in time collect nearly $2.3 million from the Sotheby's sale.
With money in hand I played it tough with Bob Hecht. Every time he tried to reach me by phone in New York I was always away from my desk -- in Katmandu or further afield.
On June 29th he wrote me a telling letter:
If you appreciated the garden piece as much as you seemed to, there is no reason why we should not come to terms somewhere in between your price and my 1.3. Because of the dollar situation, I would rather make a sacrifice on the price for quick settlement... PS My wife was happy to hear that you finally saw and liked what she had told you about last September.
I didn't figure until much later the oh-so-clever significance of his last remark.
I didn't reply. But I did a nasty thing with "BVDs" and muttered that I was having second thoughts. Although I had no intention of handing over any statues from the collection to Hecht I urged von Bothmer to make a selection -- three times he suffered through this sham.
I waited a month and sent Hecht a telegram, saying only, "I do sincerely hope we can come to terms." He tried to call but again I didn't take his call. Hecht sent a frantic letter to Dietrich offering an alternative:
One quarter on delivery (soon), 3/8 in October, 3/8 in March... Latest rumors are: 1) earliest coin sale in January; 2) contract not yet certain.
From that I gathered Hecht had gotten some word about the Swiss auction house.
Then, unexpectedly, Ted Rousseau weighed in with a storm of doubts. He'd come, irrationally, to believe that the pot wasn't "intact," but had been significantly in-painted by the clever Fritz Buerki. He demanded to go back to Zurich and study the vase some more. It was silly and the only lapse of his great eye for style and quality. I didn't dissuade him, for I figured that his return visit would shake up Bob Hecht.
When Hecht heard he sent Dietrich an anguished letter: "I heard a lament that the Southern Boys were taking over the Durkee-Ward auction" That meant Hecht had definitely learned about Sotheby's and was furious he'd been cut out. I suspected he was linked somehow to the Swiss firm and knew their price projection was shit. It made me even more pleased to have turned to Sotheby's.
Rousseau grumpily admitted there were no restorations except for the minor covering of hairline cracks. But he still seemed against the vase, which was good for my game with Hecht.
The dealer sent a list of 18 sculptures he wanted valued at around $350,000.
Dietrich rejected the list, because Hecht, unerringly, had selected the very best. I asked him to come up with a bunch of sculptures from deep storage and he blew up, asking why we had to sell to Hecht. Why not sell them at auction and use the cash for the vase. He was right. It was time to use the knout on Robert Hecht.
I got "BVDs" to tell him that I wouldn't dream of a penny over $850,000 in cash to be paid in a month. He reacted as I expected. In one letter he threatened to break off negotiations. In a second, which came the following day, he suggested "one million one hundred thousand C.O.D. in a week or 85 in cash, Zeus head, and a credit of .25 percent for the coins sales."
Funny, he wanted to cream the best from the forthcoming Sotheby's auction for a quarter of a million. I took it as a cave-in -- I figured he was really telling me he'd accept one million. I was ready to do that, enormously high as the price was, maybe the most ever paid for anything Greek.
I told him by letter that maybe he should look over Dietrich's list of storeroom sculptures just once more.
I then went on vacation in Martha's Vineyard. Dietrich reached me the next day. He was uncharacteristically agitated. Elizabeth Hecht had called him from her house in Connecticut. Her husband was ONLY interested in a trade if he could get great stuff, not the crap from storage. He'd take 850K in cash, a credit of a quarter million (with six percent interest or $2,917.80) for the coin auction and we'd have to pay insurance of some $3,000. If we paid in full -- NOW -- Hecht would deliver the vase within 24 hours. Elizabeth Hecht warned, "My husband wants to have an answer by Wednesday, after that he would feel free to withdraw his offer to you and sell the item as he pleases."
I scoffed. To whom? Who else but me would be batty enough to buy a potentially hot Greek vase -- albeit a masterpiece -- for such an astronomical sum?
Mrs. Hecht sharply told me he had another "certain" buyer and emphasized that we not call him in Rome but to telephone her, which meant that the Italian cops were bugging his phones. I tried to get to New York to talk to my chairman, Doug Dillon, for his approval of spending a million from the coin advance, but couldn't get a seat on the plane. Just as well, Hecht could sweat a little more.
Dillon, a man of sharp decision, said, "Buy it."
I called Hecht in Rome.
"Garden-man here. Relax. I want Gessler real bad, as you know. For appearances sake I don't want to walk all the kilometers you mention. Can only go one kilometer. So, let's cut through all the shit and agree on one kilometer. What say you?"
There was silence. I could hear Hecht breathing heavily, softly. What the hell was he going to say? I had a sudden chill -- why hadn't I given him what he wanted?
Collectors truly regret in the worst way the ones that got away.
[to be continued]
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.