1. OFF THE CHARTS
When I was eight my father thought I was a troubled, stupid kid. He sent me to the Johnson O’Connor Institute for Aptitude Research where I was given a battery of tests.
The Institute specialists found that when it came to aptitudes I was off the charts -- I had too many. I also scored phenomenally high in visual acuity, detecting quickly what was common in a group of seemingly unrelated objects - that three out of fifteen photos of people had their hands raised above their waist or that five out of twelve objects like a cat, a car, a chair had four legs. In inductive reasoning, I was at the highest level the institute recorded. Deductive reasoners plod along from "A" to "B" to "C." whereas inductive reasoners dart from, say, "T" to "G" to "Z" to "A" – in a kind of a zigzag. My deductive deasoning skills were lousy.
Years later my father recalled what the O’Connor analyst had told him, "Your son can do anything - or so he tests. He will probably be an amazingly quick learn and have flashes of genuine intuivity, meaning he’ll see tiny things that others don’t notice. He has a fierce ability to concentrate, almost a fixation. People with too many aptitudes tend to be highly active, arrogant and unpredictable. He might be outrageous or solid and sometimes both at one time. That might be glorious or a great burden for him. His life may turn out to be turbulent but it could be exciting with many dramatic swings."
He might have been right – I have always favored the outrageous, but when I have done something crazy I somehow have always lucked out. Many times in my life I have experienced a sudden flash and recognized that a tiny detail of an object or an issue or a theory that no one else could see had tremendous importance. Sometimes that led to disaster, but more often I triumphed.
For example, in the middle of my sophomore year at Princeton University I was about to flunk out and exams were coming up. To prepare for the crucial midyears, two of my roommates and I decided to pick up a carton of eggnog mix and have one milk punch, then sleep well, then study.
We lived in a stately suite of three rooms in Holder hall, a dormitory historically known for rakes and drunks. There was a fireplace in a large living room was decked out with stained glass windows decorated with Princeton’s Orange and Black seal and its Latin motto, Dei sub numine viget - which I, as the resident Latin scholar, loosely translated for my roomies as, "Under God’s power the University flourishes -- and we get blotto."
Three days later the floor of the living room was littered with dozens of empty cartons of eggnog mix, an empty aluminum ten-gallon milk can which someone had gotten from a local diary and fifty empty bottles of booze ranging from Rye, Scotch and Bourbon to Vodka, Gin, Curacao and Crème de Menthe. All had been mixed with the milk.
During the binge, to which dozens of revelers had come from all over the campus contributing alcoholic gifts, we decided that with eggnog you just had to have a cozy fire. So after going through the meager wood stash, we’d chopped up most of our furniture with the dormitory fire axe and burned it. We spared the bunks and a couple of overstuffed chairs. After that we fed the fire the wooden parts of our player piano that had broken down after hours of playing Dixieland. Then we consigned to the flames, clothing that bored us (including duds owned by the one roommate who was home and who barely spoke to me again in his life).
I was the life of the bash, telling jokes, performing nutty pratfalls and trying to out drink everyone. I woke up on January 15, 1951, on my twentieth birthday knowing I had hit bottom. I was an alkie. I was destitute. The only money I got was seventy bucks a month my father sent me -- when he remembered. He seemed to detest me. My mother adored me, but was slightly ga-ga from her own alcohol problems and had little money to give me.
In the days left before the exams I fed myself orange juice filled with the fillings of Benzedrine inhalers and studied for some thirty-six hours straight. I just passed, but I was placed on a special dean’s list, the one for students about to be expelled. Desperate, I asked friends what the guaranteed easy courses were for the second term, the "guts."
"Art history," a roommate advised. "They turn the lights out to show slides and you can nurse your hangover with a beer. Art history is the classic ’gut’."
I registered for Medieval Art and when my roommate heard that he exclaimed, "That’s the hardest course in the Humanities! If you pass that we’ll call you ’The Artful Tommy.’"
In the first lecture the professor, Dr. Kurt Weitzman, who spoke with a thick German accent, punched up a slide and said something like, ‘This is the pagan hero Orpheus as Christ. Christian artists, having no models to draw upon, adapted pagan subject matter, hence this complex iconography.’
I had no idea what he was talking about and was profoundly depressed that this course looked like the end of my university career. But I couldn’t keep the image of the young, radiant Jesus Christ-Orpheus out of my mind. Today, I can still see it as if the slide were up on the screen. That slide and that professor changed my life.
In the middle of that night I had one of those flashes. I woke up and muttered to my wife, "It can’t be a fake; no forger would dare invent something like ‘King of the Confessors’."
Two years later I proved that the work was no phony and persuaded the museum’s skeptical director and the board of trustees to fork over the highest amount ever paid for any medieval work of art. In time I dug up ample evidence that suggests strongly that the magnificent cross is the one mentioned in the annals of the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds in East Anglia as having been "incomparably carved" in 1156 by one of the greatest artists in history, Master Hugo, as an anti-Jewish piece of propaganda. Today, even those scholars who dismiss my theory that it is religious propaganda agree that this work is the most spectacular survivor from English medieval times.
I quipped, "If you can prove it to me, what’s wrong with picking up these bodies, put ‘em in our squad cars and dump ‘em in someone else’s precinct?" The squad room erupted in cheers.
Six months later the New York Daily News had a story, "Crime Plummets in Central Park" and I was quoted, "From now on folks will have to move in to Central Park – even at night – to be safe."
A new hire, Daniel Herrick, the vice-director for Financial Affairs, spoke up. "Mr. Director, there is one loophole to that privately owned deal – the Federal government does indemnify some corporations with overseas outlets against natural catastrophes."
"That’s it," I said. "We can create an arts indemnity from that!"
Within a week Herrick and I were in the office of the under-Secretary of the Treasury, who, when we told him about the loophole, smiled and said in a broad Texas accent, "I was hoping you boys hadn’t found out about that."
In due time President Gerald Ford signed a bill that entitles the State Department to indemnify art shows coming from abroad – now up to half a billion dollars a year.
As soon as I saw it, I knew it was bogus. I grabbed the curator’s arm and said, "Have you paid for that thing?"
"Is this a joke?"
"It’s a fake. The color – like café au lait – is not ancient; the proportions are off for that early date and the damage is suspiciously light. And his prick is too big."
"What do you know?"
"I used to dig at an ancient Greek site in Sicily and 6th century BC things do not look like that."
Two years later the Getty finally agreed with my flash of intuition and changed the label on their $9 million kouros to read that it was "either 6th century BC or 20th century." I was ecstatic.
During the acerbic contretemps between the Met and the Italians that took place between 2005 and 2007, I was interviewed by an officer high in the ranks of the special Carabinieri division charged with looking after national artistic patrimony. I agreed to help them and went to the Italian Consulate in New York to draft an affidavit that would help the Italians get back the vase.
As I was leaving, worried about the hard line the Italians were taking, I said to the officer dealing with the case, "A little word of advice, Maresciallo. Don’t be too harsh on the Met. Don’t be too grabby. You’ll have to deal with the museum forever. Why don’t you share ownership of the vase? The Met owns several pieces with other governments – and one was like the Euphronios, I mean, smuggled. Did you know that the Met has an agreement with Mexico, now going on forty years, in which the Met agrees not to buy pre-Columbian works smuggled out of Mexico in exchange for a series of great loans? Mention this to the Minister of Culture."
Maresciallo Angelo Ragusa said, "Ministers come and go, we decide this kind of arrangement. I had no idea these things existed. We shall think seriously about them."
So, I wasn’t surprised when several months later the Metropolitan announced that the Euphronios vase would go back to Italy in exchange for a lifetime of loans "equal in beauty and importance" to the krater. I immediately emailed my successor at the Met and, without revealing my role, told him I thought he’d made a great, statesmanlike decision.
And as you will also find out, I am boastful, outspoken, blunt, honest, wild, slightly sinful, impatient, angry, disrespectful of danger and intolerant of hypocrisy. I am above all controversial. I am arguably the most controversial person in the history of American art museums. That’s because I brought about a lasting museum revolution worldwide by making the Metropolitan highly popular, making a business out of the place, getting rid of duplicate works of art and mounting dozens of blockbusters.
Lots of people don’t like me, saying that I destroyed the Metropolitan, that I’m a liar, a hack, an opportunist, that I inflate my numerous accomplishments and that I am essentially an egotistical asshole. But people who cherish facts and the truth, the ones who matter in this world, do like me or at least respect me.
Enough said, what follows are bits and pieces of my zigzag life. Once you’ve read it, you might become a fan.
This is chapter one of Artful Tom, a Memoir, which is being published in serial form in Artnet Magazine.