"Bully Bob" Hecht is best known for escorting Italy's priceless Sarpedon Euphronios vase to the US in 1972 and selling it for personal profit to a private museum that gets public funding -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art; his price was $1million. Hecht is also known for his threatening fist, including an attempted assault on this writer.
The two episodes are not unrelated. They are facets of Hecht's ruthlessness, of his violent history.
Now indicted by the Italian government for trafficking in stolen antiquities -- 94 are listed -- and on trial in Rome, the 87-year old remains at-large on Manhattan's Upper East Side (defendants are not required to attend their own trials under Italian law), where he continues to charm news organizations like his hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun.
Hecht and the Sun recently entertained one another at Park Avenue's Union Club. The paper assigned a reporter to the story ("Shadows in a Tomb" 6/18/6) who had no background in antiquities and then quoted Hecht saying: "There is no concrete proof that these things were illegally excavated."
The Sun headlined the story: "For years, Robert E. Hecht sold many of Italy's national treasures. The question is: Was he stealing it?"
It then wrapped up the piece with an astonishing statement from Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery director Gary Vikan:
"I don't think there's a museum in this country that doesn't have something that Bob Hecht sold them. . . . In some respects, I think it's absolutely fair to say that thanks to Bob Hecht there are many of us in this world who are able to see works of art that reflect our shared heritage."
Thanks to Bob?
-- What of the serious charges brought against Hecht by Italian prosecutors? --trafficking in stolen antiquities, i.e., plunder, "rape of the Earth" -- as Met Ancient Near East expert Oscar Muscarella so aptly puts it .
-- What of Hecht's assault on classmates at Haverford College reported by the late John L. Hess in The Grand Acquisitors?
-- And at the American Academy in Rome? Former Met director Tom Hoving, who bought the Sarpedon Euphronios bowl from Hecht in 1972, writes this in his artnet.com "Hot Pot" series:
"I knew him [Hecht] from 1953, when I was living in Rome, when he'd left the prestigious American Academy because he threatened a colleague for having made eyes at his wife."
-- Then there's Hecht's attempted assault on me at an Upper East Side art exhibition for citing his arrest in Turkey over looted antiquities in my coverage for The Economist of the Hunt-Sotheby's auction -- "Coining it in" 6/23/90:
"Mr. Hoving declined [the Euphronios wine cup], because he had just paid $1m for a Euphronios bowl which the Italian government claimed had been looted from an Etruscan tomb. Mr. Hecht said he had bought it from a Lebanese businessman whose father had acquired it in a trade for some coins; but he was arrested in both Italy and Turkey on charges of buying looted antiquities. Mr. Hoving did not wish to burn his fingers again."
Hecht, more than a year later, was still agitated over his Economist "outing", mentioning me in his August 27, 1991 handwritten letter to Turkish journalist Ozgen Acar: A Preview Of Bob Hecht's Memoirs .
-- Peter Watson picks up on the trail of Hecht's arrest in his new book, The Medici Conspiracy:
"At the time he [Hecht] was persona non grata in Turkey following a scandal in which, on an internal flight from Izmir to Istanbul, he had taken out some ancient gold coins to examine them. . . . On arrival, police were waiting for Hecht, arrested him, and seized the coins, which they discovered had been illegally excavated. . . . He had also been arrested in Italy in the early 1960s. . .but acquitted."
-- Watson also highlights Hecht's treachery with a story in the book about Zurich art dealer Frida Tchacos who told Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri that antiquities dealer Robin Symes told her "Hecht was a dangerous man", and that she found Hecht "vindictive" and was "afraid of him". Watson noted other figures in the antiquities world were similarly "intimidated" by Hecht, and that Hecht threatened to expose anyone who cut in on his territory, etc.