Shadows in a Tomb

For years, Robert E. Hecht Jr. sold many of Italy's national treasures. The question now is: Was he stealing?

June 18, 2006|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

NEW YORK // The man accused of stripping Italy of precious antiquities and selling them on the world art market for millions of dollars now shuffles along East 69th Street by himself, his head bowed, and seems as threatening as a glass of warm milk.

He's 87 years old and can barely open a door without assistance. But Italian authorities say this man -- Robert E. Hecht Jr., a Baltimore native whose great-grandfather founded the department store that bears his name -- was for decades at the center of a criminal ring that dug antiquities from Italian soil and sold them to museums and collectors around the world.

Hecht, for his part, seems to find it all a bit amusing.

In a recent interview at the Union Club on Park Avenue, Hecht, dressed neatly in a gray suit, blue-and-pink striped shirt and red tie, began to tell his life story: He studied art and archaeology at the University of Zurich, went to Rome on a fellowship and then, he said wryly, "I went the way of all evil."

He was kidding, but the Italians aren't. Hecht is on trial in Rome for trafficking in looted antiquities. He could be fined severely if convicted, though he is too old to face jail time. Because of his age, he has not been required to attend every day of the trial, which started last November and could run for another year.

But Hecht, who has pleaded innocent, has made occasional appearances at the courthouse in Rome, most recently last month, when he reportedly sang an aria from Verdi's La Traviata to the assembled journalists.

Meanwhile, Hecht has been splitting his time between his permanent home in Paris - where he has lived since he was barred from Italy in the 1970s - and an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

He meets with friends, visits museums - some of which still display objects of questionable provenance that he sold them over the years - and waves off his critics.

"There is no concrete proof that these things were illegally excavated," Hecht said of the pieces the Italians claim were wrongfully removed from their country, "and if they were, they've been available to the world - both for admirers of beauty and scholars."

Hecht is a man who has seen the world pass him by. In the 1950s, shortly after his arrival in Italy, he bought antiquities on the streets of Rome.

No one had a problem with it. The shops, Hecht said, would happily ship the ancient cups, coins and statues out of the country if you couldn't take them home yourself.

Now, Hecht finds himself on trial for allegedly doing the very things that were accepted practice half a century ago.

"He lived long enough to see his livelihood not only eclipsed, but also impugned," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which is known for its antiquities collection and which bought several pieces from Hecht in the 1950s. "This guy is sort of the personification of the sea change."

Made good contacts

It was Hecht's great-grandfather, Samuel Hecht, who founded a furniture store in Fells Point in 1857 that would become a regional retailing giant. Robert Hecht's grandfather and father both worked for the family business, but Hecht decided it wasn't for him.

"My father said do what you want," Hecht said. So he did. Growing up in Baltimore, he went to Friends School, where he played lacrosse, and then studied classics at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Hecht graduated in 1941 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in January 1942.

His ship escorted merchant vessels in the Atlantic, guarding them against attacks from German subs. After the war, Hecht, who had taken German in school, briefly served as an interpreter for war crimes investigations. He had also studied Latin and Greek - languages that would earn him some status in the world of art dealing.

Hecht landed in Rome in the late 1940s, first for a fellowship and then to stay. Asked what drew him there, he mentioned "the fun of reading Plautus," a 2nd-century B.C. Roman playwright.

Displaying his dry wit, Hecht added that at the time, "The primary occupation in Italy was eating spaghetti."

But Hecht's primary occupation quickly became buying and selling antiquities. He had an eye for the kind of objects that would interest museums and collectors, and he had the wit, charm and education to ingratiate himself with the right people.

"He had a good classical education, and he was early in the field and therefore he made a lot of good contacts," said Peter Watson, author of The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, published in May. He points out that Hecht knew the right people at the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

"He is a gregarious man, obviously, with a lot of interpersonal skills," Watson said in a phone interview from London. "And he was adept at picking things up for very little and selling them for quite a lot."

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