February 10, 2012

Journalist Jason Felch on Antiquities Dealer Robert Hecht Jr. "I found Hecht to be a likable rogue"

Robert Hecht Jr in front of the Euphronios Krater
 at The Met which was returned to Italy; now on display at 
the National Etruscan Museum at the Villa Guilia in Rome.
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Journalist Jason Felch, co-author of Chasing Aphrodite with Ralph Frammolino, reported for The Los Angeles Times the death of the "controversial dealer in classical antiquities," 92-year-old Robert Hecht Jr. who died in Paris just three weeks after Italian judges dismissed looting charges against him.

In their book on the history of The J. Paul Getty Museum's collection practices for antiquities, Chasing Aphrodite (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), Felch and Frammolino describe Hecht as "the preeminent middleman of the classical antiquities trade" who's "network of loyal suppliers reached deep into the tombs and ruins of Greece, Turkey and Italy."
"Since the 1950s, Hecht had sold some of the finest pieces of classical art to emerge on the market. His clients included dozens of American and European museums, universities, and private collectors ... For decades, Hecht single-handedly dominated the antiquities market with his brilliance, brutality and panache.... Even those who sold directly to museums gave Hecht a cut of the deal, earning him the nickname "Mr. Percentage".
Last month, Elisabetta Povoledo for The New York Times reported that the Italian trial against Robert Hecht for "receiving artifacts illegally looted from Italy and conspiring to deal in them" ended with the expiration of the statue of limitations on his alleged crimes.

In fact, although Hecht was banished from Turkey in 1962 for allegedly dealing in ancient coins and from his home in Italy after details of his relationship with Giacomo Medici and Marion True emerged, Hecht was never convicted of any crime. Medici was convicted of trafficking in looted antiquities in 2004 but remains out of jail while he appeals the conviction. The case against Marion True was also dismissed because the statue of limitations expired.

Via email I asked for Jason Felch's thoughts on Robert Hecht whom he had interviewed on the phone after the charges were dismissed last month.  This is Mr. Felch's response:
Hecht was a career criminal, and a remarkably successful one. We've detailed his crimes and the damage they caused in Chasing Aphrodite at length. He was investigated several times in several countries and never successfully prosecuted. Obviously that's a failure of justice. 
That said, I rather liked Hecht. I first met him in 2006 in New York City and continued to talk and occasionally meet with him over the years as I investigated the illicit antiquities trade. During those same years I also met with several other key middlemen in the trade. All were interesting men, but most were unpleasant. Medici was overbearing and boorish, fond of speak of himself in the third person. [Gianfranco] Becchina was hard to read and rather ominous. [Robin] Symes, who I never met but Ralph interviewed in jail in London, came off as a shrill pill. 
Hecht, by contrast, was fascinating and, for the most part, a pleasant dinner companion. He was very sharp, evasive and often witty. He told me his story and the story of the trade, while always remaining coy about certain details. He had deep knowledge about ancient art of all kinds and was clearly passionate about the subject. So much so that he was a lousy businessman, perennially broke because he couldn't say no (and because of a nasty gambling habit.) He was driven less by greed, it seems, than by a passion for the objects and the collector's obsession to possess. He was brilliant at what he did, and had he continued with his studies at the American Academy he would have made a remarkable archaeologist. Instead, he chose the dark side.
He also had a curious sense of honor, one honed during decades of working in a criminal underworld. The latest example was telling. About a month after I sent him a copy of Chasing Aphrodite -- which contain dozens of damning references to Hecht's role in the illicit trade -- he called me at my desk at the Times. Well written, he said, but you got one thing wrong. I asked: Was it that part about you running the illicit antiquities trade for decades? Or perhaps the part where Marion True describes you as an abusive, occasionally violent alcoholic? No, Hecht was upset that we had suggested he had ratted out the competition (something his competitors accused him of in sworn testimony.) He had never done so, he insisted, and our suggesting otherwise was "bad for business."
My job occasionally requires me to spend time with criminals. Many are awful people. I found Hecht to be a likable rogue. Someone should make a movie.
In addition to Chasing Aphrodite, you may find additional information about Robert Hecht Jr.'s career in the book by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities -- From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums (PublicAffairs, 2006).

2 comments:

Your comment above, quote:

He was investigated several times in several countries and never successfully prosecuted. Obviously that's a failure of justice

What makes you judge and jury? Are you yourself so above the law, or are you yourself the one and only law ..that's a failure of justice... reveals just how undemocratic, totalitarian, and fascist you really and truly are.

Justice systems routinely hand down verdicts/judgements which are unpopular with some sectors of society--live with it!

In my opinion the wording, "that's a failure of justice" reveals that the author has a total disregard for any democratic judicial system. Everyone is, of course, entitled to an opinion, but to posit a "failure of justice" without recourse to legal proof for any documentable judicial irregularities which might be legally remedied in a court challenge simply reaffirms my position that such an author presents himself/herself as the sole dispenser of justice.

Dr Robert Steven Bianchi

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