The Grand and Glorious "Hot Pot" -- Will Italy Snag It?
New York's art institutions have gathered up the entire history of art ranging from pre-history to now. Every civilization in 50,000 years is represented by something. How many works of art are there? God knows. The Met alone has over three million pieces.
Most of the stuff is kind of routine, decent but not unique samplers of whatever culture. Footnotes.
A tiny handful are real masterworks, pieces that cannot be equaled in quality anywhere else on earth, the super-gems. These are the ones that will last forever. They are unbelievably well wrought. The marks of uncommon genius. They are works that'll change your life when you see them the first time and will addict you for the rest of your life.
No museum in the city lets you know which ones are the super-gems or touts them properly. No museum puts the footnotes where they belong -- in side galleries off grand galleries, which single out only the rarest of the rare. I, personally, get stifled by these footnotes masquerading as grandeur.
Since I'm convinced that the majority of the museum public has no idea what's good, better or superior, but would like to know which is which, for the next several months I'm going to single out and tout New York's super-gems.
In one, which may be the finest work of all in the city, the drawing is equal to Leonardo's or Albrecht Dürer's. The drama is as intense as the greatest Rembrandt. The architecture is Parthenonesque although on a much smaller scale. The artist was as innovative as Pablo Picasso. The work is the single finest example of the artist's amazingly rich creative activity. It is flawless in technique. Its condition -- for that kind of thing -- is sensational.
It's a Greek vase, called a calyx krater -- a huge urn for mixing strong wine with water, 12 gallons worth -- in the new classical galleries at the Met, dating to around 510 BC signed by the potter Euxitheos and the painter Euphronios.
I first got wind of it in September 1971 when, as director of the exalted Met, I got a totally unexpected call from Elizabeth Hecht, the wife of an American antiquities dealer who lived in Rome, Paris and Spain. What the hell is this all about, I recall thinking at the time. She told me that Bob had just been consigned a "startling piece" and he might offer it in a few months.
I was instantly intrigued.
Bob Hecht is a numismatic genius, a tennis addict and the world's hottest purveyor of Italian and Turkish antiquities who is rumored to have contacts with the mafia in southern Italy. I knew him from 1956 when I was living in Rome, when he'd left the prestigious American Academy because he apparently threatened a colleague for having made eyes at his wife.
He's been in trouble with the Turkish authorities for trying to export banned antiquities including a bunch of stunning coins. What kind of trouble was never spelled out.
Bob is the kind of guy who seems always stooped over slightly and is never capable or willing to look you in the eye. He has a stuttering laugh and often seems to converse in code. Whatever role he's playing at the moment -- scholar, "amateur dealer," finagler -- he is sharp, witty, always on the cutting edge of art information worldwide. And he always has great, great stuff.
A hint of what his wife said he was about to offer came five months after his wife's phone call in a coded letter to the curator of Greek and Roman art, Dr. Dietrich von Bothmer, the brilliant, garrulous and ruthlessly factual German super-expert in Greek vases who had fled the Nazis and had fought in the Pacific and was awarded the Bronze Star for gallantry.
Although most people in the Met took Dietrich as a fucking busybody and an arrogant aristo-kraut especially because of that "von" he insisted on keeping despite his American citizenship, I liked him a lot (despite his talkiness) and relished his amazing eye for the best.
Dietrich von Bothmer -- I called him "BVDs" after the underwear -- sashayed into my office a minute after I got to my desk with Hecht's letter and a massive volume. The letter began by referring to some entries and photographs in Sir John Beazley's monumental study on all known Greek vases and said in part, "If something like p. 14, no. 2 were in PERFECT condition & complete, which would merit a gigantic effort, a really gigantic effort? I am quite disposed to be "engegenkommend" with Thor if you like him."
Dietrich dropped the open volume to page 14, illustration 2, which showed a large picture of a red-figured vase. I instantly recognized it; it was a gorgeous wine vessel in the Louvre showing a startlingly vicious wrestling match between Hercules and Antaeus made by the revolutionary painter Euphronios. I considered it one of two top Greek vases on earth, even if it fragmentary.
Dietrich explained that he guessed I was Thor, "engegenkommend" was "to meet someone halfway" and that, astounding though it sounded, Hecht seemed to actually have gotten his hands on a complete krater by Euphronios. None existed amongst Euphronios' surviving 27 vases.
First thing into my mind was, "If so, then the thing had been illegally dug up and smuggled."
I zapped "BVDs" with my belief that the Hecht vase HAD to have been found in an Etruscan tomb near Rome. Etruscan tombs were often filled with Greek goodies. The Greeks disdained being buried with their stuff.
He smiled patronizingly and said, "Oh, Tom, Cervetri and the other Etruscan sites are carefully guarded nowadays and what's more they've been plundered dry years ago."
Bullshit I thought, but didn't say so to Dietrich.
Another month went by before hearing from Hecht again. This letter needed almost an Enigma machine to decode:
Regarding p. 14 of Jackie Dear's red I made a hint asking you and your trusted associates would make a super gigantic effort. Now please imagine this broken, but COMPLETE and in PERFECT STATE -- by complete I mean 99 44/100% and by "perfect state" I mean brilliant, not weathered. It would hardly be incorrect to say that such a thing could be considered the best of its kind -- I don't say that necessarily it is, but ... it's hard to find competitors.
Assuming the first part of above para. to be the case, would it be able to be considered in terms of a specific painting (as, i.e. more or less the flags at that beach resort in France by Monet or someone, rather than a pot.) The equivalent might be available and I would then discuss it with you. But if a priori the trusted ones would think in terms of pots, it would be best not to begin.
Jackie meant John Beazley; red was a red-figured krater; the beach resort by Monet was the recently-acquired for $1.4 million "Terrasse a Saint-Addresse."
Shit, I thought, a Greek vase for around one point four million? I laughed and Dietrich looked gloomy. I told "BVDs" to get specs and photographs.
In March Hecht got back.
Gessler not yet mature, but his salary in neighborhood of that beach resort with flags which made an impression on Tom.
"Tom, Gessler is the frohnvogt in Wilhelm Tell -- Eu-phron-ios, get it! And, best of all, Gessler means that this Euphronios -- whatever it is -- is safely in Switzerland."
Smuggled in for sure I thought. Why else Switzerland -- one of the few countries that has no rules against bringing in stolen or illegally excavated works?
By April Hecht shipped over a set of black and white prints showing the vase standing up on its foot with all the pieces lightly glued together with no inpainting of the hairline cracks. Not the tiniest sliver was missing and I guess "intact" was accurate despite the thing having been broken. (It occurred to me that it might have been dropped on purpose for easier smuggling.)
Dietrich compared it with other vases by Euphronios. There was no doubt that it was finer than anything the genius had ever achieved. I told him to schedule a meeting in Zurich at the laboratory of Hecht's restorer, Fritz Buerki in early June.
I told my second-in-command, Theodore Rousseau Jr., the sophisticated socialite-gentleman-scholar-incomparable connoisseur to set time aside to join us. "Ted, this may be the single greatest work of art you and I will ever collect together."
He gave me the kind of smile that meant he wasn't pleased or convinced but that he'd salute and carry out his marching orders.
I flew over with "BVDs" and he never stopped talking the whole way. Jesus! He started on Bob Hecht and ended four hours later -- just before I conked out for a half hour -- with Euphronios and the state of vase painting in the early 6th century BC.
"Bob's honorable, a genuine scholar -- impeccable with numismatics -- scion of a wealthy Baltimore retailing family which is good. I admire him because even if I've not been that dedicated a customer over the years, Bob's always shown me his best offers."
At length he focused in on the history of vase painting. "Greek art is generally divided into three phases, the archaic, the classic and the Hellenistic. Within the last 50 years, the archaic has become recognized as the most important of these phases, and the last quarter of the sixth century has evoked the greatest interest. For it is during those mere 20 years that Greek art advanced more energetically and more quickly than at any time before or after. In Greek art the emphasis at all times is on the human form, and it is in the late archaic period that human anatomy is for the first time not only fully understood, but competently translated into artistic terms.
This holds true for both sculpture in the round and in reliefs, as well as for two-dimensional representations. For the latter we have come to rely almost exclusively on the paintings on vases. In this field we are fortunate that great artists are known and recognized, and when we speak of style, it is not in abstract generalizations, but is identified with the works of individual artists, hence something intimate and personal.
By a curious coincidence most of the vase-painters of the last quarter of the sixth century are known to us by their real names, indeed the majority of all known signatures on vases occur in this very period. The artists that are credited with the most important innovations form what is called the Pioneer Group. In this group of about a dozen artists Euphronios, Phintias and Euthymides are the leaders; of this trio, Euphronios is considered the best."
The only time I refrained from nodding off was when he described how Euphronios had painted the huge vase with its central subject of Sarpedon, the Lycian Prince, ally to the Trojans in the late Trojan war, being carried off -- dead and wounds still gushing blood -- by the armed and elaborately winged figures of Sleep and Death. It was, to me, a miracle of dexterity and discipline.
"The potter, in this case the brilliant Euxitheos, turned over a huge, thick, weighty, totally damp vase the color of wet terracotta to our friend Euphronios. He painted all ten of the massive figures, all the highly complex palmettes which abound, the hundreds of tiny, tiny delicate lines in the armor of Sleep and Death, their elaborate wings and feathers with hundreds upon hundreds of never-overlapping lines, the hair, the outlines of the bodies. He achieved all this complexity -- much more than the thousands of lines engraved on a ten-dollar bill -- without ever seeing clearly what he'd just drawn."
"Dietrich, You're shitting me."
"No. Euphronios worked with an instrument that was rather like a pastry bag with a bone or wood nozzle -- with a very fine hole, like a hypodermic needle -- filled with a liquid that came up black for the relief lines and in colors ranging from light ochre to deep brown only after the vase had been fired. So, Euphronios had to memorize where every line went so that none would overlap or break through another -- thousands."
"It gets harder. Euphronios stuck this large, heavy lump of wet clay on his knees, took his syringe and worked as fast as he could, mind you, utterly from memory, never failing to stop a line at the precise place so that, later, all overlaps would turn out to be in exact juxtaposition. He had to work fast, because the wet clay was starting to dry out. Maybe he had an hour to paint the whole thing. The rectangular picture plane on the front -- the main scene of Sarpedon -- was where he tarried longer. The complex palmette decorations all over the rim and foot and surrounding the handles were done after the main scene. The rectangular panel on the back, which in this case shows young warriors arming themselves, was done last. One secret, unknown to all but high specialists and now you, Tom, is that the back scene on all kraters are painted more summarily because time was running out."
"He did all this truly without seeing all these hundreds and hundreds of lines?"
"Correct. The dangers in potting and painting an important commission were considerable. Countless times even the most gifted artist saw his work emerge from the kiln with a blown line or a crack and had to be discarded."
"So this may be the best of the best of the finest, eh?"
"Got to get it, huh?"
"Dietrich, what's your guess on the origin of this astonishing krater? Can't be very likely it's been sitting around on some English Lordy's mantelpiece after great-grandfather got it on the Grand Tour in the 18th century, is it? You know, especially being in "Gessler."
It was the only time in his life I think or, at least, in the years I had known him, that Dr. Dietrich von Bothmer, Teutonic Blabbermouth, had ever fallen quite silent.
I at once interpreted Dietrich's silence as his knowing the thing was illegal. At that moment he and I established an unspoken understanding. We would avoid knowledge of the history of the vase. We would never talk about where we really thought was its provenance.
We taxied to Buerki's house in a modest suburb of Zurich. Ted Rousseau came shortly after. Hecht and Buerki, whose house was filled with antiquities in various stages of restoration which I thought was odd for the "furniture restorer" Hecht had told us about, ushered us in and I spotted the vase standing on a table in the dining room.
I didn't stop to look. I walked out into a small garden.
"Take it outside. I want to see this in the full blast of the sunshine."
[to be continued]
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.