Italy has new evidence that Met's urn was looted

Memoir of Hecht, American who sold vase to museum, conflicts with official account

October 28, 2005|By JASON FELCH AND RALPH FRAMMOLINO | JASON FELCH AND RALPH FRAMMOLINO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

In their decade-long investigation of the illicit antiquities trade, Italian authorities have amassed the most convincing evidence to date that the most prized ancient Greek vase in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art was looted, records show.

The Euphronios Krater, described as one of the finest antiquities ever obtained by the Met, has been the center of controversy since the museum acquired it 33 years ago.

Italian authorities have long claimed the vase was looted from a tomb north of Rome, but the Met has refused to return it, saying the Italians lack "irrefutable proof."

Italian prosecutors now believe they have it, according to previously undisclosed court records obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The court records include detailed summaries of a handwritten memoir by Robert E. Hecht Jr., the American dealer who sold the krater to the Met. The memoir has been seized by Italian authorities.

Hecht told museum officials he had acquired the krater from a Lebanese man whose family bought it well before a 1939 Italian law banned the unauthorized export of antiquities.

But in his memoir, Hecht tells a very different story. He writes that he bought the krater in 1971 from an Italian dealer who has since been convicted of trafficking in looted art.

After seeing a photo of the vase in Italy, Hecht wrote, he immediately took a train to Switzerland and agreed to pay 1.5 million Swiss francs to the dealer, who had the vase in a safe deposit box.

The court records also cite a sworn deposition of Marion True, the J. Paul Getty Museum's former antiquities curator. In the deposition, True told an Italian prosecutor that her counterpart at the Met had shown her an aerial photograph on which he pointed to the exact tomb in a heavily looted necropolis north of Rome where the krater had been excavated, a fact the Italians say could not possibly have come from Hecht's Lebanese dealer.

On the basis of this new evidence, Italian authorities have renewed their demands for the return of the 2,500-year-old krater, an urn used for mixing water and wine, gracefully decorated by ancient Greece's master painter.

The Met refused to comment on Hecht's memoirs. In a statement, the museum said that in February its officials had requested a meeting with the Italian Ministry of Culture for a "full discussion of works in the Metropolitan's collection that were the subject of the Ministry's concern." The Met has not yet received a response, museum officials said.

Italian officials here said in recent interviews that two of seven men identified years ago as having looted the krater have confirmed their role to authorities but have refused to give sworn statements.

The Italians also say in court records that they have photographs of Hecht and the Italian he identifies in his memoir as the krater's dealer, Giacomo Medici, posing next to the vase at the Met. Medici, the records say, has traveled the world posing next to objects he has sold to major museums.

Toward the end of his memoir, seized in a 2001 raid on his Paris apartment, Hecht briefly re-states the official version of how he acquired the Euphronios Krater from the Lebanese dealer, the court records show.

But in the court records, Italian authorities cite contradictions and dismiss this version as "a story told to hinder penal and civil actions in Italy."

The krater depicts the death of Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, in a scene from Homer's Iliad. It is considered one of the finest Greek vases to have survived antiquity. Acquisition of the krater in 1972 sparked a media frenzy and judicial investigations in both the United States and Italy. But the Met has for decades clung to Hecht's official story.

The Met's director at the time, Thomas Hoving, called the piece "one of the two or three finest works of art ever gained by the museum."

But he later changed camps and called it "a hot pot," writing in a 1993 memoir on his stewardship of the museum that he was convinced the krater had been looted from Italy and that Hecht had duped the museum with the story of the Lebanese dealer.

Hecht, an expatriate whose father founded the Hecht's department store chain in Baltimore and Washington, and True are facing trial in Rome for allegedly trafficking in looted art. Medici was convicted last year in the same case and is appealing a 10-year prison sentence.

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino write for the .

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