Suzan Mazur: Bob Hecht, The Younger
Bob Hecht, The Younger
By Suzan Mazur
Robert Emanuel Hecht, Jr., BA with Honors, Haverford College 1941 -- "He also led the legion of the damned"
"A fugitive from the Ivy League, Bob survived the machinations of a minor league Boltz to become a member of the cosmopolitan Merion Hall crew. He also led the legion of the damned -- the Charity Chest canvassers -- into action, with signal success. Perhaps his favorite form of relaxation from the labors of a Latin major is a good fast Viennese waltz, but he also plays a shrewd game of bridge and heaven help the wayward partner. Bob's gemutlichkeit [warmth, friendliness?] also leads him to hearty singing of German songs."
- Haverford Record Yearbook
Bob Hecht, the dean of antiquities dealers now on trial for trafficking stolen art, has apparently since his youth at Haverford College been single-minded in his passion for recapturing the glories of the ancient world. Much like late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, who once told me over one of her macaroni and cheese casseroles at Olduvai Gorge, "I live totally in the past."
Hecht was not on the football, basketball, baseball, swim or even cricket team at Haverford. Nor was he part of the drama circle or on the staff of the student paper. In fact, there's hardly any chatter about him in the Haverford school archives, so it seems he valued his privacy. Hecht was a scholar and graduated with honors, class of 1941, but without receiving any particular award.
One story headlined, "Hecht Reorganizes Charity Chest" did crop up in the local Haverford/Ardmore, Pennsylvania news, however, dated Tuesday, October 29, 1940. The piece mentions Hecht's announcement as chairman of the Charity Chest that Haverford College students would now be able to earmark their contributions to charities and that less money would be going to the Red Cross in the future. Hecht said the Red Cross was already getting enough money to the destitute.
Hecht also said part of the Charity Chest's funds would go instead to causes like "help[ing]one of the College janitors to get a degree in music from Temple Night School" -- viewed as a "radical" departure from the usual allocation of funds.
Perhaps this is a glimpse of the Bob Hecht who would "give the shirt off his back", as the late Smithsonian coin curator Vladimir Steffanelli described him in part. The other Hecht Steffanelli described to author John Hess ( Grand Acquisitors) was a man who could become "extremely haughty" and was not afraid of getting his hands dirty with "illegal digs".
Hecht also informed the Haverford press that "additional large donations" from Charity Chest would go to the American Friends Service Committee (because of Haverford's Quaker affiliation), the Shengtu University which one of the alumni headed, and an orphanage in Lebanon -- with some funds reserved for college reconstruction. He promised to publish the complete funding plans in April of 1941.
Hecht's sense of compassion as well as his money skills appear to have been nurtured by the Quaker-affiliated school in the tradition of Ben Franklin, one of America's "founding fathers" -- who although not Quaker himself, was point man in the Quaker Society of Friends. (I tried to picture Hecht today among students outside Haverford College cafeteria selling jewelry to raise money to feed starving Hurricane Stan survivors in Guatemala. Somehow I couldn't.):
"At this time when the major complaint is that money is so scarce it must be an act of kindness to instruct the moneyless how they can reinforce their pockets. I will acquaint you with the true secret of money catching, the certain way to fill empty purses and how to keep them always full. Two simple rules well observed will do the business. First, let honesty and labor be thy constant companions. Second, spend one penny every day less than thy clear gains. Then shall thy pockets soon begin to thrive, thy creditors will never insult thee, nor want to oppress, no hunger bite, nor nakedness freeze thee; the whole hemisphere will shine brighter, and pleasure spring up in every corner of thy heart. Now therefore embrace these rules and be Happy. "
- Ben Franklin: "The Art of Making Money In Every Man's Pocket (originally published: New York, P. Maverick, 1817)
Hecht's alma mater is situated in gorgeous woodsy antique-collecting country just outside Philadephia. Sotheby's has an office now in Haverford not far from the train station on Haverford Road. The school's campus occupies part of the land carved out by Quakers in the early 1800s from a tract ceded by William Penn.
A half dozen or so gothic stone buildings comprise the main campus, which sits on a hill in the middle of an arboretum with 400 tree types (cherry birch, Austrian pine, double-flowering peach, weeping mulberry, a Penn Treaty elm -- descendent of the tree under which Penn signed his treaty with the Indians, etc.).
There's also a 3.5 acre duck pond with far too many geese at the moment. And fresh-faced students running about in shorts in the leaves along the 2.25 mile-long nature trail encircling the grounds.
For about $800 a year, Hecht received a pampered education at the school along with his 75 other classmates. Even now the ratio of faculty to students is 1:9 at Haverford. There is an honor code as there was during Hecht's time at the school. The school prides itself on its informality; exams, for instance, are not supervised by teachers. Also, the cooking is terrific, sort of "Pennsylvania Dutch".
However, it must have been tricky for Hecht serving as president of Haverford's German club in 1940-41 (his grandparents, Babette and Samuel Hecht, Jr., the Baltimore department store founder, emigrated from Heidelberg).
Hitler had already invaded Poland, and WWII was very much underway, with Uncle Sam about to throw in his hat. There was a ratcheting up of recruitment of America's young men, with FDR promising, "We shall pay them back with compound interest".
In fact, Hecht's zeal for his German roots may have been the source of his fistfights at the school, a pattern that continued at the American Academy in Rome and even into his senior years -- when at age 71 he attempted to punch me at an art opening over an article I wrote for The Economist mentioning him in relation to the Hunt-Sotheby's auction of "highly important vases".
As a Quaker school, Haverford did not offer boxing but Hecht could have chosen to channel his angst into fencing. Although, I cringe at the thought of Hecht with a sword.
Former President Herbert Hoover gave the 1941 commencement address to Hecht's graduating class after which the Society of Friends at Haverford conferred on Hoover the degree of Doctor of Laws as a "democratic leader with sympathies as broad as the human race".
Hoover was opposed to the US entering WWII, telling Hecht and the 1941 grads gathered that "Whatever the outcome of this war one more thing is certain - this whole world and our own country will be greatly impoverished and smothered with debt."
However, it was also not unusual to see op ed pieces in the college press discussing Hitler's vision:
"No matter how much you may disagree with German methods and policies, the Reich has pointed the way towards what may prove to be the basic world organization of the future. This organization consists of uniting complementary agricultural and industrial regions along strictly geographical lines, rather than artificially imposed boundaries for military purposes. Thus, in this so-called new "German order," central and southeastern Europe, parts of France, and Scandinavia serve as a hinterland of agricultural products and raw materials for the heavily industrialized regions of Germany, Holland, Belgium, and northern France. The methods used in acquiring and governing these territories, no one but the ardant Nazi dare to justify. There is a challenge to the democratic nations in what Hitler has done, however, a challenge which may be met by the United States and the British Empire if they reorganize fully the potentialities in the formation of a union."
- Courts Oulahan, The Stack, "Union Now or Never"
According to Hecht's former business partner Bruce McNall, Hecht was rumored to be a spy during WWII but only admitted to serving in the war and later settling in Europe. McNall was the man who sold important coins and vases to the Hunt brothers, including two now-contested pieces signed by Euphronios, one a wine cup with the theme of the death of the Lycian prince Sarpedon, a son of Zeus and other other a fragmentary vase.
Former Metropolitan Museum Director Tom Hoving has just emailed me saying he believes there were three depictions of Sarpedon by Euphronios and says former Met Greek and Roman curator Dietrich von Bothmer agrees. They cite the pieced-together wine cup purchased at the Hunt-Sotheby's auction by art dealer Giacomo Medici (now convicted of antiquities smuggling) as one; it's now in even tinier pieces in the Villa Giulia museum in Rome. Another cup Hecht presented by way of a photo to the Met in 1973. And, of course, the Met's complete Euphronios vase. Hoving writes:
"Kiddo, I called the guy who was with me when bobbie h. [Hecht] showed the photo of the early sarpedon -- dietrich von b[Bothmer]. I asked what he recalled seeing and he said exactly what I remembered, a Euphronios cup with Sleep and Death marching to the right with Sarpedon's body on their shoulders like some log of wood. My eye doesn't forget, it seems. . . ."
However, the Hunt-Sotheby's Euphronios wine cup also has the figures of Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) marching off to the right with Sarpedon's body en route to the underworld. Tough to judge from a photo last seen over 30 years ago. The cup could have been the same glued-together version that Medici bought with pieces missing, the pieces having crumbled with mishandling some time in the last quarter century.
Bruce McNall later went to jail for overvaluing ancient coins and then wrote a book Fun While It Lasted. In the book McNall described Hecht's way of doing business as follows:
"The people who smuggle artifacts are quite similar to those who traffic in drugs. Sometimes they are the same people. Every once in a while one of them is arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison. Every once in a while one of them is murdered for trespassing on another's turf. . . But as a young man, with a young man's sense of invulnerability, I didn't focus on the hazards. Instead, I saw Hecht as another powerful man who moved in rarefied circles and made his fortune with his ambition, intelligence, and personality."
Hecht was probably already battle-hardened before his service in WWII, from poring over Roman history and the letters of Caesar, et al. His passion for antiquities obviously took root at the same time through the poetry of Catullus, Vergil, Horace and Ovidus "Ovid" Naso, and Imperial Roman prose (Petronius, Tacitus, Pliny's letters) and drama (Plautus, Terence, Seneca):
"Rites are performed for Minerva, which take their name from the five days in a row.
The first day is free of blood because that is Minerva's birthday,
The second and third are celebrated by the spreading of sand,
for the war-like goddess delights in drawn swords."
But it may have been Hecht's "shrewd game of bridge" -- his boredom with playing the cards straight -- that has now driven his chariot into a Roman courtroom.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org