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Suzan Mazur: Sotheby's & The Signed Euphronios

The Medici Go-Round: Sotheby's & The Signed Euphronios

By Suzan Mazur

Click images for big versions
L-R: Bob Hecht/Connoisseur - Sarpedon/Sotheby's - Giacomo Medici

Sotheby's-Hunt Auction, June 19, 1990 -- Conditions of Sale:
(sale code for auction: "Sarpedon" 6042)

"On the fall of the auctioneer's hammer, title to the offered lot will pass to the highest bidder acknowledged by the auctioneer, subject to fulfillment by such bidder of all the conditions set forth herein, and such bidder thereupon
(a) assumes full risks and responsibility therefor, and
(b) will pay the full purchase price therefor or such part as we may require . . .
At our option, payment will not be deemed to have been made in full until we have collected good funds represented by checks, or, in the case of bank or cashier's checks, we have confirmed their authenticity."

Proceedings resume December 5 in the trial of the dean of ancient art dealers -- Bob Hecht -- and former Getty museum antiquities curator Marion True. Will Sotheby's be called to answer questions about some of the items listed by Italian prosecutors as looted from Italy -- particularly the Euphronios pieces?

The priceless Euphronios cup -- painted with the image of the fallen Trojan war hero Sarpedon -- is the earliest known work painted by the Athenian master, last seen intact publicly in New York in 1990 on the Sotheby's block as lot #6 selling for $742,000 and going to a "European buyer".

Sotheby's press spokesman Matthew Weigman responded defensively and somewhat sarcastically when I called to inquire if Sotheby's was involved in the Rome trial, saying, "No, are you?"

I considered it a relevant question, since the "European buyer" for the cup last week identified himself to the press in Italy as Giacomo Medici, a man convicted of antiquities smuggling and now appealing a 10-year sentence. Medici was named in Bob Hecht's memoirs seized by police in Paris, as the person who originally supplied the cup to Hecht, meaning it has come full circle and with the loveliest pedigree.

Medici denies he sold it to Hecht. But Italian tomb robbers have backed up Hecht's claim that the pieces were looted from a necropolis near Rome. And that Medici was involved with Hecht.

The Euphronios cup turned up in a 1997 police raid of several of Medici's warehouses in Geneva, the very one sold by Sotheby's at an auction held for Nelson Bunker Hunt, June 1990.

In retrospect, the Sotheby's-Hunt auction, which I covered for The Economist, was far more controversial than reported at the time.

According to Weigman, Sotheby's made a "collective decision" to hold the auction. He and current antiquities expert Richard Keresey are part of the original team from that time still working for Sotheby's.

Sotheby's former chairman, Alfred Taubman and Diana Brooks, then in top management and later CEO, were sentenced for price fixing in 2002 to a year in jail, and six months home detention, respectively.

Weigman told me that there never was a report to the public after Sotheby's conducted it's internal investigation a few years ago following British author Peter Watson's damning book, Sotheby's: The Inside Story: Books: Peter Watson about how ancient art makes its way to the auction block.

But in light of developments surrounding the Hecht-True trial, that might not be a bad idea, as it now looks as if Sotheby's may have been a conduit for stolen antiquities once again in its handling of signed Euphronioses -- there was also a fragmentary Euphronios vase that sold for $1.7 million --and other "highly important vases".

Should Sotheby's have realized that putting up for auction not one but two signed Euphronios pieces in the gee whiz way it did in 1990 would come back to haunt? Weigman, keeper of the gate, now says the auction house will not comment about specifics surrounding the Hunt sale.

Are the Hunts excused? Bunker and brother Herbert were also ill-advised about the silver market and had to answer for it. But with the "highly important vases" now out of Bunker Hunt's hands, he says he won't answer questions either about his antiquities purchases from dealer Bruce McNall.

McNall later went to jail for overvaluing ancient coins. McNall also sold the Hunts their Athena decadrachm which went for $572,000 in the Sotheby's auction -- probably since returned to Turkey.

Medici, the man who placed the winning bid on the Euphronios cup was at the heart of an antiquities smuggling scandal that began to rock Sotheby's London in the mid 1980s, a controversy first exposed by Peter Watson in the London O bserver in 1985 and detailed in his above-mentioned book.

The scandal resulted in a major court case with Sotheby's London employees resigning, one going to jail and one suicide. Alfred Taubman was at the reins as chairman of Sotheby's beginning in 1983 through the 1990s.

Last week, Medici also told the Italian press that he was able to buy the elusive Euphronios wine cup (kylix) at Sotheby's because he was not known at the time.

Not known to whom? To Sotheby's? That seems impossible considering the facts that follow (see chronology below).

That Euphronios cup, circa 520bc, is the same one the Italian government claims was looted from an Etruscan tomb near Rome in 1971, along with the complete Euphronios vase (calyx krater) purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in 1972, which the Met has now agreed to return to Italy if Italy can provide "incontrovertible proof" it's theirs.

The cup is painted with a similar theme as the Met's vase, the death of the Lycian prince Sarpedon, son of Zeus. It was shattered during the police raid on Medici's warehouses in Geneva in 1997, as reported by Bloomberg last week. Even so, Medici claims the masterpiece is worth $5million today.

Vernon Silver, covering the antiquities trial for Bloomberg in Rome, sent an email with Medici's remarks after I'd emailed him my stories. [See - Euphronios Ancient Art In Court The Provenance Of Bob Hecht]

Silver: "He [Medici] said he was bidding in plain view, but that nobody knew who he was. (Next highest bid was Levy.) And Medici says he got a call a week or two later from Sotheby's saying that the Met wanted to get the kylix from him in a private sale, which he turned down."

Again, Medici was named by dealer Bob Hecht in Hecht's memoirs seized by authorities in Paris in 2001 as the one he acquired the cup from for $25,000 in the early 1970s, although Hecht is now denying what he wrote. Hecht then offered the cup to the Metropolitan Museum in 1973 for $70,000; Met director Tom Hoving said no.

But Medici's Sotheby's antiquities purchases apparently did not stop with the Euphronios cup. Among the items seized at his various warehouses in the Geneva freeport in January 1997 [See… Medici's Reply to "Geneva Seizure" (translation)], were several "highly important vases" from the same Hunt auction, as well as about 10,000 other antiquities:

  • Attic Black-figure Kylix (circa 540-530bc)

  • Attic Red-figure Stamnos (circa 480bc)

  • Attic Red-figure Kylix (circa 490-480bc)
  • Mark Rose, Executive Editor at Archaeology magazine, reminded me in an email about comments made in Medici's defense by New York dealer Fred Schultz. The magazine published Shultz's letter following its coverage of the raid of Medici's warehouses. Schultz recently spent a couple of years in jail for receiving stolen antiquities.

    Said Schultz: "Instead of proving that Mr. Medici is the secret smuggling connection from Italy, however, your website proved exactly the opposite, and proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. With the exception of the Ostia column capitals, every object of possible Italian provenience comes from a bona fide old collection." [See…].

    Sotheby's author Peter Watson noted some objects seized at Medici's warehouse carried the Sotheby's label and "no other type". Watson wrote: "Medici may have bought these objects at Sotheby's, or he may have, as the Italian police believe, bought back his own objects, laundering them in the process, to show they had been through a reputable auction house."

    So many pieces of the puzzle are now coming together that it may be helpful to establish a timeline.


    The Chronology:

    Early 1950s - Bob Hecht enters into a partnership with Romanian coin-expert Vladimir Steffanelli after WW II and Steffanelli's release from a Nazi concentration camp. Their New York-based company, Hesperia Arts, is kept going even though Hecht moves to Rome. Steffanelli becomes a coin curator at the Smithsonian.

    1956 - Future Metropolitan Museum director Tom Hoving meets Bob Hecht while livng in Rome. Hecht had been attending the Amercian Academy there but left after "threatening a colleague" for making a pass at his wife, Elizabeth, according to Hoving. New York Times reporter John Hess in his book Grand Acquisitors also notes Hecht's bullying as an undergrad at Haverford College -- a Quaker school -- saying Hecht was feared. Hecht attempted to punch me, as well, following a story I wrote for The Economist mentioning him in relation to the 1990 Sotheby's-Hunt auction.

    1971 - December 1971 - tomb at Cerverteri broken into. According to Hoving, Hecht buys contents. Probably brokered by Medici.

    Tom Hoving: "The Etruscan tomb near San Antonio de Cerveteri filled with Greek treasures, including the Euphronios cup, the complete Euphronios krater, a sphinx and a lion, was discovered in December 1971 and the contents bought by Hecht. The krater was restored by Buerki starting around January 1972."

    1972 - February 1972 Hecht writes to von Bothmer about a complete Euphronios vase for sale with a compelling scene from Homer's Iliad, the death of Sarpedon, the Lycian prince and son of Zeus. The letter was preceded by Elizabeth Hecht, Bob Hecht's wife, calling Hoving at the Met in September 1971 about another Euphronios - a fragmentary vase belonging to Armenian dealer Dikran Sarrafian. Hecht follows up on details with Hoving. Hoving flies to Zurich in June 1972 to see the complete vase. Sarrafian and his wife are killed in a suspicious car accident in 1977.

    1972 - Met purchase of the complete Euphronios vase is finalized. Storm follows. Met Ancient Near East expert Oscar White Muscarella opposes sale and is fired from the Met - takes battle to Met Board of Trustees and to court (seven-year court case); Muscarella is reinstated at the Met with less prestigious title.

    Nicholas Gage, the mafia-beat reporter for the NYT, tracks down Hecht in Rome and a man named Armando Cenere, a mason by profession, who claims he was the original tomb robber of the Euphronios pieces at Cerveteri and that the job took a week. Hecht denies all.

    1973 - Hecht attempts to sell Euphronios cup to Hoving at the Met. Hoving declines.

    Early 70s - Press surrounding Euphronios sale causes Hecht to move to Paris. He also operates out of New York - a gallery called Atlantis Antiquities on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

    Mid 70s - Tom Hoving: "In the mid-1970s, Bruce McNall was Bob Hecht's secret U.S. partner. Hecht introduced me to McNall as such. Together in my office at the Met they both boasted to me of their partnership."

    Hecht sells various Greek vases to McNall, which McNall then sells to Bunker Hunt. Among them the signed Euphronios pieces. McNall also sells the Hunt brothers a collection of important ancient coins, including the celebrated Athena. In the 1990s McNall is convicted for overvaluing ancient coins.

    Mid 1970s - Italian government is unsuccessful in pursuing a case against Bob Hecht re the Euphronios, involving Hoving and Met Greek and Roman curator Dietrich "the Prussian" von Bothmer. New York grand jury says not enough for an indictment.

    1983 - McNall interests the Kimball Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas in arranging an exhibition of the Hunt brothers' collection of ancient art. The show: "Wealth of the Ancient World" produced a catalogue with photos and descriptions by various curators and scholars. Most prominent is Dietrich von Bothmer ("There is no souce to a cup, a cup is a cup."), but also the controversial Jiri Frel, a former antiquities curator at the Getty. Von Bothmer ends his essay, "The Vases of Nelson Bunker Hunt," saying:

    "Nelson Bunker Hunt has demonstrated in the few years he took up collecting in earnest that the tree is strong and healthy. The many masterpieces that he has acquired are proof of a discriminating eye, and the spread of his collection -- from Corinthian black figure to South Italian red-figure -- is evidence of a broad outlook. No collection, of course, is ever "complete," and one of the greatest attractions of collecting vases is perhaps the chance of constantly adding to it. Some of the vases here described and now exhibited were acquired even while this introduction was being written, which I take to be an auspicious mark of the true collector."

    1983 - Alfred Taubman takes over as Chairman at Sotheby's. He goes to jail in 2002 for price fixing. Sotheby's manager and later CEO, Dede Brooks, gets six months home detention.

    1983-85 - Christian Boursaud the front for Medici, consigns for sale to Sotheby's London 248 pieces worth 640,000 British pounds.

    1985 - Peter Watson writes an expose for the London Observer about Sotheby's London and the smuggling of antiquities from Italy.

    1985 - July 3 - von Bothmer letter to Sotheby's London antiquities expert Felicity Nicholson about Christian Boursaud and Serge Vilbert (fronts for Giacomo Medici). What are the chances von Bothmer also wrote to Sotheby's New York?

    Von Bothmer tells Nicholson that an Attic black-figured amphora Sotheby's was offering at auction had been looted from a tomb near Rome, north of Civatavecchia, and sold to a dealer for 4 million lire. "This may get you or your would be purchaser in trouble should the Italian authorities read your catalogue and make the same identification."

    Sotheby's antiquities people investigate and withdraw the piece from sale, noting the piece had been consigned by a company called Christian Boursaud - largely a front for Medici -- along with over 100 other unprovenanced pieces.

    James Hodges, Sotheby's cataloguer who later blew the whistle on the auction house's smuggling activities knew of Medici's role at Boursaud. Sotheby's antiquities chief Felicity Nicholson admitted in court "Giacomo Medici was the force behind" Christian Boursaud which by 1986 had morphed into a company called Editions Services.

    Author Peter Watson went to Italy and interviewed the tomb robber who said Medici "used to visit him on a small motor scooter" but now drove a big car and and that he was now worth millions. The tomb robber Luigi Perticarari confessed while Watson's tape recorder was running.

    March 1986 - Boursaud closes his business, citing health reasons, and sends a letter to Sotheby's London antiquities chief Felicity Nicholson advising her not to sell any more pieces for him.

    March 1986 - Nicholson returns Boursaud's letter telling him she knows he'd been "acting as agent for the owner" -- the owner being Giacomo Medici. The revelation about Medici was the result of Nicholson's conversations with James Hodges, then administrative head of Sotheby's London antiquities and tribal arts.

    Hodges leaves Sotheby's in 1989 after he was visited and threatened by men associated with Boursaud, Vilbert and Medici. He spills the beans to authorities and to author Peter Watson about the smuggling ring. He was later convicted as part of the conspiracy and spent five months in jail.

    According to the Dutch website SECUMA on museum security, during the trial Hodges claimed that three months before leaving Sotheby's he'd also told Lord Gowrie, then-chairman of Sotheby's London, of his concern over the auction house's involvement with the smugglers.

    March 1986 - Following Boursaud-Nicholson letter exchange, Hodges and Nicholson believe Medici is point man behind Boursaud

    December 1986 - Medici begins using same inventory as Christian Boursaud, operating as Editions Services s.a. based in Geneva.

    Through the years - Hecht and Medici take Polaroids of themselves at various museums in front of pieces they've handled, which Italian prosecutors are now using as evidence in the antiquities trial that resumes December 5, 2005 in Rome.

    1990 - The Hunt brothers are faced with paying off creditors as a result of their failed attempt to corner the silver market. They arrange an auction at Sotheby's New York. At the time Alfed Taubman is chairman, DeDe Brooks is top management and later becomes CEO. Dick Keresey is the expert in charge of antiquities. (Keresey and Sotheby spokesman Matthew Weigman still in same positions at Sotheby's in 2005).

    June 19, 1990 - The Sotheby's New York auction of Nelson Bunker Hunt's "highly important Greek vases" - the first time Sotheby's handles pieces signed by an ancient artist. Several of these go to Giacomo Medici (now appealing a conviction for antiquities trafficking). Among the pieces he says he bought are the earliest known Euphronios, a wine cup now in pieces in a cardboard box in the Villa Giulia museum in Rome. Three other vases from the Hunt collection are part of the hoard seized at his warehouses in Geneva.

    1991 - Sotheby's London antiquities director Felicity Nicholson admits in court that Medici is behind Editions Services, a company holding much of the inventory previously held by Christian Boursaud.

    1995 - Sotheby's and Christie's hatch price-fixing scheme.

    January 1997 - Police with cross-border search warrants break into Medici's warehouses in Geneva seizing 10,000 antiquities. Among them various pieces from the Hunt auction, several with Sotheby's labels.
    1997 - The Sotheby's London antiquities scandal continues through 1997. Sotheby's does not release details of its internal Investigation which followed Peter Watson's book.

    2001 - Bob Hecht's Paris apartment is raided by police and his memoirs seized. In them Hecht says he purchased the Euphronios wine cup and complete vase in 1971 from an Italian dealer, Giacomo Medici.

    Hecht writes: "Medici became prosperous selling mainly to me." (Los Angeles Times 10/28/5)

    2002 - Sotheby's Chairman Alfred Taubman imprisoned, age 78, for one year for price fixing; Guardian notes he's been described as an "out-of-touch" executive who would fall asleep in board meetings. Sotheby's CEO Dede Brooks, did not agree with this description of Taubman; she gets six-months' home detention.

    2004 - Medici convicted in Rome of trafficking in looted art. Now appealing a 10-year sentence.

    2005 - Former Getty museum antiquities curator Marion True gives deposition for her upcoming trial in Rome; she and dealer Bob Hecht are accused of trafficking ancient art.

    True: "Professor von Bothmer wanted me to be his successor at the Met. . . . And at one point I was in his office, and he had a photograph, an aerial photograph, which showed the necropolis of Cerveteri. And looking at the necropolis he pointed to a certain spot on the photograph, and he said this is the place where the Euphronios krater was found." True told prosecutor von Bothmer showed her a particular tomb. Von Bothmer denies (LA Times 10/28/5)

    2005 - November 16 Hecht and True go on trial in Rome for trafficking in stolen antiquities. Hecht does not show up; at age 86 his lawyer says he's too old to appear. Under Italian law a defendant does not have to attend their own trial.


    And the Medici carrousel whirls round and round . . .

    The Euphronios cup after being rejected by the Met's Hoving was snatched up by Nelson Bunker Hunt, who got it from Bruce McNall who got it from Bob Hecht who wrote in his memoirs that he got it through Medici. McNall arranged for it to be exhibited at the Kimball Art Museum where Met Greek & Roman curator Dietrich von Bothmer said nice things about it which were carried over into the Sotheby's catalogue. Medici then made the winning bid for the cup at Sotheby's. And the Euphronios kylix has come full circle. Medici gets to keep it if he successfully appeals his conviction - he gets two tries.

    At the time of the Sotheby's-Hunt auction, Medici seems to be a known quantity as the above chronology shows. He would have to have produced identification in order to bid.

    Weigman says this is an assumption. But in a conversation I had last week with Sotheby's "Client Accounting" about long-standing company policy, I was advised that clients have to either present government-issued ID before the day of sale or on the sale floor in order to get a paddle to bid. That would include Medici.

    "You have to have an account with Sotheby's in order to bid," Client Accounting representative Glen Clark told me by phone. "You get an ID. We would definitely be aware of who the client was." Clark, who's been with Sotheby's for several years, says things have gotten even tighter now with the Patriot Act.

    However, when I asked Clark if someone were a dubious buyer, a suspected smuggler, would Sotheby's have sold to them. He responded, "We're not policing," and that once the hammer comes down the piece is sold "unless the client fails to pay".

    How is payment made? Clark said by wire transfer, check or cash - only $10,000 of any sale can be paid in cash. The Sotheby's/Hunt catalogue reads regarding absentee bids: "buyers unknown to us are advised to make payment arrangements or supply credit references in advance of the sale date. If such arrangements are not made, purchases cannot leave our premises until checks have been cleared."

    So what were the chances Sotheby's knew they were selling the kylix to Medici? There doesn't seem to be any doubt that they considered Medici a "qualified purchaser".

    What then are the repercussions for Sotheby's for its "bad sale"? And for not really checking out the provenance of the cup? Bunker Hunt and the Kimball Art museum are not provenance, nor is Bruce McNall or Hecht.

    Italy now also wants back also the signed fragmentary Euphronios vase Sotheby's auctioned for Bunker Hunt, part of Shelby White's collection on loan to the Met. And to give a sense of how incestuous the antiquities crowd really is, Shelby White, for instance, is also on the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum, occasionally writing for the New York Times. The late publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, served as chairman of the Met while he ran the paper and during the time the Euphronios vase was purchased by Hoving.

    It's impressive that Bloomberg news is covering the Rome antiquities trial, since Mike Bloomberg is also on the Met's Board of Trustees as mayor of New York. The Met sits on city-owned land -- Central Park - a private institution that receives public money . But that's a story in itself.

    For now, it does appear Sotheby's has questions to answer about some ancient pots. . .


    Suzan Mazur's stories on art and antiquities have been published in The Economist, Financial Times, Connoisseur, Archaeology (cover) and Newsday. Some of her other reports have appeared on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox television news programs. Email:

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