The "Hot Pot" III -- The Shit Hits the Fan
"Agreed," Hecht said.
Very coolly I told him, "I'll talk to your wife on details."
I gently placed the phone back on the stand and then shot out a yell of triumph. I sat back at my desk shuffling the black-and-white photos of my latest passion and felt a near-sexual pleasure. We had landed a work that I guessed would be the last monumental piece to come out of Italy, slipping in just underneath the crack in the door of the imminent UNESCO treaty, which would drastically limit future trade in antiquities. We had gained a triumphant work, one of surpassing power and infinite mystery, one that, I was sure, would someday reveal a few surprises.
When he heard the joyful news, Dietrich told me he'd become resigned to the lugubrious fact that I'd passed on the vase. He complimented me on my "coolness" and blessed me for not having forced him to sell any of his treasures.
Two days later Hecht's bill arrived, on a cheap Swiss restaurant tab: "1 Attic red figure crater signed by artist Euphronios and potter Euxitheos U.S. $1,000,000. Please pay by cable transfer to Union Bank of Switzerland, Bahnhofstr. 45. Zurich for Robert E. Hecht Jr."
I chuckled at his misspelling of krater as crater.
At a special session of the acquisitions committee the pot was purchased for the record sum of $1 million. No one seemed taken aback by the price, especially when I emphasized Sotheby's advance.
I swallowed hard as I described the vase's provenance and "our right to purchase it under the UNESCO regulations." The treaty, I added, had not yet been signed. I described the steps we had taken to assure ourselves that there was no problem. I was pedantic wanting to sound lawyer-like, but I was walking on thin ice.
I told the board members the dealer was known, Robert Hecht. So, too, was the owner, Dikran A. Sarrafian of Beirut, a "well-known art dealer." I explained that Sarrafian had stated to Hecht, and had submitted in writing, the fact that the Euphronios vase had been in his family's collection at least since World War I. I handed out copies of Sarrafian's letter. More written documentation on its way had been read to me by Hecht, and I described the stuff.
The first letter from Sarrafian, of July 10, 1971, referred to the Attic "crater" that Hecht had seen with a business representative of Sarrafian's in Switzerland informing him that the vase to be delivered to Hecht would be priced at a million dollars. Sarrafian's second letter, dated Sept. 9, 1972, declared that "the origin is unknown and that my father got it in exchange with an amateur against a collection of Greek and Roman gold and silver coins in February and March of 1920 in London." He went on to say that the vase was in fragments and that he had authorized its restoration "some three years ago."
I also emphasized to the trustees that Hecht's bill from also mentioned the pot being in the Sarrafian collection since World War I. We had, in fact, gotten two bills.
Naturally, I held back from all board members my suspicions that both letters had been concocted by Hecht. My reasons for believing so, admittedly, were based upon details -- Hecht's first bill, dated Aug. 31, mentioned nothing about Sarrafian, and the second, also dated Aug. 31, did, and the second bill said that Hecht had the piece "from Dikran Sarrafian, Beirut, whose family has possessed it since before 1941" not World War I.
I excused my not voicing my suspicions by rationalizing that perhaps they were unjust. In many cases people who own works of art for a long time forget the details of when the piece first came into the family. It seemed logical that Sarrafian, considering the deteriorating political situation in Beirut, had gotten rid of most of his things and had sent the fragmentary krater to Zurich for safekeeping years before.
No one on the committee asked a single question. They were delighted that such a magnificent treasure had been landed and that the money had fallen into our laps. The vote was unanimous.
Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, was especially impressed by the flawlessness of the vase. His eye had picked out the places where the object had been repaired in antiquity by several lead clamps, and he had lightly asked if we had subjected the vase to the same tests we had given an Archaic Greek horse, that was thought, erroneously by some, to be a fake. I assured him that if we bought the vase; we'd send a sample of the clay to a laboratory at Oxford in England and subject it to a thermoluminescence test. As he was leaving, he ran his fingers over the glistening rim of the piece.
"I don't usually get involved in editorial matters at the paper, but this is so unusual; it's such an opportunity. Well, I can see this vase on the cover of the magazine."
"What a great idea!" I said.
Soon after the acquisitions committee had approved the Euphronios krater, I learned that James Mellow, a freelance writer, had been assigned the cover story for the New York Times Sunday Magazine and would be interviewing Dietrich and me. The story was to appear in November, I was told. The Euphronios was a perfect example of the merits of using moneys from the sale of deaccessioned objects and a major story along those lines would help deflect some of the growing flak we were getting on the sometimes-clandestine sales of mediocre or duplicate paintings.
I was damned happy that John Canaday, the senior art critic of the paper, had not been selected. He was waiting to zap me from the very first time I'd met him shortly after becoming director of the august Met in 1967. He'd remarked ominously to the head of PR, that he'd be watching me, being suspicious of my populist tendencies.
James Mellow's front-page story of Nov. 12, 1972, managed to be studious and sprightly at the same time. To my pleasure, Mellow referred in passing to the deaccessioning affair and stated that the purchase of the vase was what the selling campaign was all about -- to rid the museum of things it had better and acquire universal masterworks.
Von Bothmer was the man of the hour, and the article described his bravery in the Pacific war. He had been wounded in both legs in New Guinea but had carried a wounded buddy to safety. His company commander had put him in for the Silver Star, but as Dietrich lay in the hospital recuperating, he chided his commander. Didn't he know that for the Silver he had to have two witnesses and he had only one -- the man whom he had saved. He was given the Bronze Star instead. Good literal old Dietrich.
Mellow puzzled over the complete lack of provenance. We had decided to say nothing about Sarrafian, principally because I believed the scholarly community would snicker. How could it be, Mellow asked, that in all the volumes and catalogues of Greek vases lining the shelves in Bothmer's extensive library, the krater had never been mentioned?
"The interviewer is left with the mild suspicion that the Metropolitan's new masterpiece might have materialized out of thin air."
The shit hit the fan five weeks later. A second front-page story on the vase by the reporter specializing on the Mafia, Nicholas Gage, egged on by John Canaday, appeared in the New York Times, this time in the daily paper. "How the Metropolitan Acquired 'The Best Greek Vase There Is'."
The slashing article stated that the object had been illegally dug up near Rome in late November or early December 1971.
This initial blast was followed by an unprecedented journalistic firestorm. Fully nine more front-page stories appeared in the next ten days. By three weeks there would be 19 stories on the Euphronios. I was a publicity hound, sure, but, hell, this coverage, which was more extensive than the Times coverage of Nixon's Christmas bombing of Hanoi, was outrageous, dangerous and irresponsible.
The first story, which Gage filed from Rome, described the vase and inaccurately stated that Bothmer and I had refused to discuss details about the acquisition. As soon as I read the sentence I groaned -- why the fuck hadn't we pushed Dikran Sarrafian on James Mellow? We had been idiots to play it cool.
The Times' investigation had browsed through five European cities and included interviews with many art scholars, not a single one identified. Gage pointed out that we had purchased the vase without ever meeting the man who owned it, which he hinted was some kind of unethical and fraudulent behavior. He claimed that Hecht's story had been disputed by "several European scholars and dealers" -- again, unnamed -- who agreed that the vase was genuine, but had nothing to do with Sarrafian and had been found north of Rome in November 1971 by bootleg excavators. They sold it to Hecht, who promptly smuggled it out of Italy.
Gage claimed that the diggers were "veterans who knew they had a prize when they saw the paintings on it and its excellent condition."
Gage reported Dietrich as saying that Hecht was "a reputable dealer," then acidly observed, "Mr. Hecht has been arrested in Italy and in Turkey on charges of buying antiquities illegally excavated, but the charges were ultimately set aside. The Turkish Government, however, has declared him 'persona non grata'." Gage wrote that the tombaroli -- or tomb robbers -- had cleaned up, gaining over $100,000.
Other newspapers and magazines picked up the exploding story. The Times' art writer, David Shirey, interviewed Bothmer, who came off sounding imperious, saying such things as "it doesn't matter if our vase has been the 3,198th or the 3,199th found in Italy" or "I knew Hecht was involved in smuggling charges ... many dealers are charged with smuggling."
I put in a call to Hecht in Rome demanding that he come over right away and let me know what the fuck was up.
"Relax, for Christ sakes," he mumbled. "I can't, and anyway, why should I? You're perfectly legal."
I was a bit frightened because I was convinced that the Times team had rooted out the straight story. But I didn't convey my feelings to my colleagues, especially Dietrich, because of our mutual unspoken understanding about avoiding knowledge.
Von Bothmer focused in on one curious statement of Gage's that seemed to him "impossible" -- the comment the diggers were veterans and knew they had a prize. Dietrich stated flatly that no vase was ever found intact. "If the so-called diggers saw it in pieces, how were they to know that its condition was so fine?" he asked. It was customary, he said, to set up fragments of what was found in the field in a box filled with sand so that the diggers could get a very general idea of what they had. It was virtually impossible to obtain an accurate view of an entire vase when it was in dozens of pieces.
I sternly told Bothmer not to speak to the press again. And then I messed up. I subjected myself to a television interview beside the vase, which we had placed in a vitrine in its own grand gallery illuminated by a dozen spotlights. I defended buying it, emphasized that no United States laws had been violated, and made one of my patented gaffes -- l jokingly referred to the krater as the "hot pot." The name, of course, stuck.
Gage's next front-page story reported that the Italian carabinieri were conducting two separate investigations. He quoted sources as saying the Italian police were convinced the vase had been found in an Etruscan tomb within the last two years and that a second vase, also by Euphronios, had been found in the same tomb and was about to be seized by the Italian police.
Hecht was under official investigation. He had been grilled by the police and claimed the owner of the vase was a "friend whom I can not name because revelations might cause tax problems in his own country." Odd, I thought, when I read the piece -- I knew Lebanon had no taxes at all.
David Shirey wrote a backup piece in which it was revealed that Dietrich had told him that Hecht had acted on behalf "of an Armenian," adding blithely "the fragments might have been in a shoe box" and had been temporarily glued together when Hecht had first seen them in Zurich. Bothmer, not holding his tongue, identified Fritz Buerki as the restorer and had told Shirey that he, Bothmer, had gotten in touch with Fritz Buerki to repair the vase, saying, "Mr. Buerki is no minion of Mr. Hecht. He is a freelance restorer." I knew the statement to be untrue.
When I brought it up, Bothmer shrugged. When I demanded why he had mentioned a shoe box and pointed out that our huge vase couldn't possibly fit into a shoe box, "BVDs" said testily, "Tom, I, of all people, ought to know in what space the complete fragments of a calyx krater would fit into."
The front-page story the third day in a row was titled "Seller of the Greek Vase Is Named by Met Curator." Dikran Sarrafian was identified by Dietrich and on the same day by Hecht's lawyer in Rome. That had been my doing. I had told Hecht coldly that if he didn't name Sarrafian, we would.
Hecht had protested that "Dikran will get into terrible trouble in Beirut! I'll bet he never declared the vase when he took it out. He'll hate me!"
In the Times piece were published the two letters to Hecht I had shown to the acquisitions committee. Dietrich told what we had paid -- something the museum had rarely done before. The story at least gave the impression that we wanted to be open and cooperative.
The next day there was another Times front-page story by Gage, and this one made us look like fools.
"Never Saw Vase Intact, Beirut Dealer Says." The reporter had dashed to Beirut and had caught the 68-year-old art dealer in a rambling interview. He quoted a host of statements by Sarrafian that were in stark conflict with his letters to Hecht and Hecht's statements to us.
"Dikran A. Sarrafian, the Lebanese art dealer named by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the person who sold it an ancient Greek vase for about $1 million last September, said today that he had never seen the vase as a whole until he looked at a picture of it in a newspaper this morning." Sarrafian told Gage that he had handed over to Hecht "a hatbox full of pieces," mumbling "if anyone looks closely at the museum's vase, he should see a lot of painting over.''
I fumed. Why the hell did he say that?
In other equally damaging statements, Sarrafian also claimed that it had been Hecht who had received the bulk of the money, commenting "I have no complaints about Bob Hecht. Good luck to him. Only the U.S. Treasury may be the loser, and it lost a lot more in Vietnam." Gage also reported Sarrafian as saying "I never expected the pieces in the hatbox to realize a great deal of money."
The New York Times obviously thought Sarrafian had never owned a Euphronios.
I called Hecht and told him to get his fucking ass over to explain.
"Okay" he said calmly, "But relax."
[to be continued]
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.