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Suzan Mazur "No Ransom" - Part II (With Audio)

"No Ransom": Part II
Met Whistleblower Oscar White Muscarella On Immediate Return Of Italy's Euphronios (Includes Audio)


By Suzan Mazur

"[Met Greek & Roman Curator Dietrich] von Bothmer, [Met Director Tom] Hoving and Chief Curator Theodore Rousseau first saw the [Euphronios] vase in a Zurich garden on June 27 [1972]. Von Bothmer later recalled: "You're prepared for heavenly music, but you don't know how heavenly until you've heard it."

"When I saw the vase," he said, "I knew I had found what I had been searching for all my life." . . .With [former US Treasury Secretary/Met Acquistions Committee Chairman C. Douglas] Dillon's approval, Hoving did not balk at [Bob] Hecht's price, one million dollars. He ordered the cracks mended and painted over, at the museum's expense. On August 31, Hecht arrived with the vase in a crate and, according to one account, handed it over to Dillon and Hoving at Kennedy International Airport. At any rate, the bill of sale bears that date. The Acquisitions Committee of the trustees approved the purchase twelve days later."
--John L. Hess, The Grand Acquisitors


Oscar Muscarella

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[ LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEWS: Click on the link below to connect to the audio version of both Parts I and II – 40 Minutes.

CLICK TO START AUDIO STREAM - DOWNLOAD .MP3 (12Mb)]

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Unlike many in the museum world, Metropolitan Museum Ancient Near East expert Oscar White Muscarella was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His childhood was spent in foster homes. And at age ten or eleven he was adopted by his mother's second husband, Mr. Muscarella.

He says these turbulent early years helped to shape his character. He learned the importance of never giving up the struggle for what one believes in and the power of organizing, which he later applied to union organizing, for example.

He won a scholarship to study archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. And then he began digging. In the late 1950s, he excavated in the former Phrygian capital of Gordion near present day Ankara, and after that, directed or participated in digs in Turkey at Alishar, Ayanis and Cadir Hoyuk, as well as in Iran at Hasanlu, Agrab Tepe, Se Girdan and elsewhere.

Muscarella joined the Ancient Near East department of the Metropolitan Museum in 1964, and served very briefly as acting director of the department. However, he proved too potent for Met director Tom Hoving, who fired him in 1973 essentially for opposing the purchase of the Euphronios vase. The very same vase now officially recognized as stolen cultural patrimony and about to be returned to Italy. Muscarella won a lengthy court battle over the issue at the time and was ultimately reinstated in his position at the Met (with a less prestigious title).

Oscar Muscarella is also the author of several books including The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures.

Despite being silenced in the past by gag orders issued from current Met Director Philippe de Montelbello, Muscarella agreed to meet with me for part two of a conversation on the controversy surrounding the ongoing Rome antiquities trafficking trial of dealer Bob Hecht and former Getty curator Marion True.

Muscarella says there has been no official comment from Director de Montebello to our first Scoop interview, which was picked up widely. "Ferocious," was the word ArtNet's Editor Walter Robinson used to describe it. But, tremors from within the Met's Greek and Roman "Temple of Plunder" (as Muscarella calls it) were reported from as far away as New Zealand and Tasmania.

Meanwhile,

Editor Sam Smith at Progressive Review's Undernews termed Muscarella's tale of the NY Times and the plundered vase about as scathing as the saga of Judith Miller.

What can de Montebello say? Muscarella has been proven right!

Part II of the interview follows.

*********

[ LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEWS: Click on the link below to connect to the audio version of both Parts I and II – 40 Minutes.

CLICK TO START AUDIO STREAM - DOWNLOAD .MP3 (12Mb)]

*********

Suzan Mazur: Oscar, I've heard from Bob Hecht, by the way. He sent me an email in response to my stories saying that Samuel Hecht, Jr. emigrated from Hannover not Heidelberg. That was his statement regarding all of my Bob Hecht stories. He's due back in court on the 8th of February, which is Wednesday.

Isn't it fascinating that the New York Times and Bloomberg News made the big splash first in reporting on the Met's decision to return the Euphronios vase [although I mentioned the Euphronios vase "about to go back" in the December 25 Muscarella Scoop interview ] considering Pinchy and Punchy Sulzberger and Mayor Bloomberg are sitting on the Met's committees.

[After decades of serving on both the Met board of trustees and its acquistions committee, former Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger (Punchy) remains on the acquisitions committee. His son, the current NYT publisher--Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. (Pinchy), is presently a member of the Met's board of trustees along with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg owner and founder of Bloomberg News.]

I mean, isn't it about time that these news organizations run up front in every story on the subject a statement describing their connection to the museum?

Oscar White Muscarella: Well, this is something I've felt for some time going back 30 years when I had problems with various New York Times reporters. Jack Canaday. Recently Ernestine Boehlen, for example. Where they wouldn't discuss any of these issues.

So, it's perfectly - unfortunately - normal behavior when people have conflict of interest roles, as Sulzberger does on the board of trustees. He's functioning in both capacities. As the trustee, it's his job to protect his fellow trustees. And, therefore, his role as owner of the New York Times reflects that. And so, unfortunately, I am not surprised. And I've watched this for some time.

Somewhere along the line we mentioned Nicholas Gage in our interview.

Suzan Mazur: Previous interview.

Oscar White Muscarella: And what's interesting is that only yesterday - 30 some odd years after the Nicholas Gage [the former Times mafia-beat reporter] articles, a NYT reporter is finally allowed to, finally mention Nicholas Gage's articles, which were fundamental in establishing that the Euphronios vase was plundered from a specific tomb in Italy [Gage tracked down the tombaroli who looted the Euphronios from Cerveteri in 1971.].

Suzan Mazur: But the NYT comes out, one of the first newspapers to come out with the story about the Euphronios going back [to Italy] and then some of the other smaller newspapers pick up the exact story from the NYT and public opinion starts getting shaped by whatever the NYT has written. It's all very factual. There's no real discussion. And so the readers are left with a sort of dictate of what the NYT has put forth. Which is coming from the [Met's] trustees.

Oscar White Muscarella: As I said about the NYT, they publish all they see fit to print. The issue is, of course, that not only are they all using the NYT as a standard because the NYT gets official press releases from the Metropolitan Museum, but there's something else involved that none of these articles mention.

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To: All Staff
From: Harold Holzer
Date: February 2, 2006
At the request of the Director and the President, I wanted to share with you a press statement that the Museum issued today, and about which you may see newspaper coverage tomorrow.

News Release The Metropolitan Museum of Art Communications Department1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028-0198 tel(212) 570-3951 fax (212) 472-2764 communications@metmuseum.org
For release:
Immediate:
Contact: Howard Holzer

STATEMENT BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

(NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 2, 2006) - The Metropolitan Museum of Art today formally presented to the Italian Cultural Ministry in Rome a revised draft of an agreement under which legal title to six antiquities from the museum's collections, including a group of 15 Hellenistic silver pieces, would be transferred to Italy. In exchange, the Italian government would provide to the Metropolitan long-term loans of works of art of equivalent beauty and importance.

The proposal follows the receipt of evidentiary documents provided to the Museum by the Ministry, and positive discussions last week between Italian Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione and Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan.
The concept of transferring title to the disputed works to Italy, in exchange for long-term loans from Italian collections, was first presented by Mr. de Montebello at a face-to-face meeting with Italian officials, including Culture Minister Buttiglione, on November 22 in Rome.

Late last month, Italian officials presented the Museum with a draft agreement along these lines, to which the Metropolitan has now responded with the draft sent to Rome today. The Metropolitan Museum looks forward to reaching a final agreement and building on its long traditional of excellent relations with Italy.

###

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Oscar White Muscarella: Le Comte Philippe is an employee of the trustees. And when de Montebello. . .

Suzan Mazur: Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum. Le Comte.

Oscar White Muscarella: Yes he is Le Comte.

Suzan Mazur: The Count.

Oscar White Muscarella: He works for the trustees. He serves at their pleasure. All the articles state that de Montebello did this. De Montebello said that. But in fact. Let's talk about the Times alone. They know their boss, the owner of the Times, is on this board of trustees along with other people. And it's the board of trustees who will make the final decision. And it's the board of trustees, Mayor Bloomberg, Sulzberger and, by the way, someone else named Shelby White.

[Shelby White is also "owner" of the signed fragmentary Euphronios vase - now "on loan" to and on exhibit at the Met. The Italians are very interested in Shelby White.

The fragmentary Euphronios was originally sold by Bob Hecht to Texas oil man Bunker Hunt in the 1970s, according to Hecht's former Rodeo Drive antiquities partner Bruce McNall. It was then resold to collector Leon Levy, Shelby White's now-deceased husband, at the June 1990 Sotheby's auction in New York. At the same auction, the signed Euphronios wine cup was reunited with its original "owner" Giacomo Medici, who's appealing a 10-year sentence for antiquities smuggling.]

They're the ones who are directing de Montebello. And they're the ones who will make the final decision. None of this what I'm saying to you right now. None of this ever appears in a NYT article.

Suzan Mazur: Now the museum, the Metropolitan Museum has pledged to return the Euphronios and some of the Hellenistic silver. And four other vessels. I don't know what those four other vessels are.

Oscar White Muscarella: They were stolen vessels from Italy. That's why they're returning them.

Suzan Mazur: Do you know which ones they are?

Oscar White Muscarella: No. It doesn't matter. But they're four of hundreds of stolen objects. Let's put it that way.

Suzan Mazur: But the condition is that they want long-term loans from Italy along with the right to excavate. I don't know what the dynamic of that is. How many years they're requesting to excavate. But another stipulation is that the Met would have no liability regarding its purchase of the Euphronios vase back in 1972, etc. They say that it was purchased in "good faith" in other words. What are your thoughts about that?

Oscar White Muscarella: Oh boy. A lot. It's manifest that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e., the Trustees whose names I just mentioned, is asking for a ransom from Italy. If you want the material back, you must pay a ransom. The ransom is that you must allow us to keep the objects for some time. You must give us loans. And you must not say that we were bad guys, that we stole the vessel. That we knew it was stolen.

But from day one the Metropolitan Museum of Art knew. All the staff knew. Everyone in the archaeological art community knew that the vase was plundered from a destroyed tomb in Italy at the command, of course, of the museum and collectors.

As for "good faith," in my book, The Lie Became Great, I state what good faith is very loud and clear.

When a museum director or curator or trustee says that they purchased an object in good faith, what it means is that the dealer who sells it to them can guarantee:

(1) that the site from which these objects were plundered is now destroyed so no one can trace it;

(2) that the objects were smuggled out of the country of origin;

(3) that all the bribes were paid;

(4) that the object was then shipped to America and entered legally.

That's what in "good faith" means. And, indeed, when Le Comte [de Montebello] says he bought it in good faith, that's exactly what he means.

Suzan Mazur: But let's go back to when Tom Hoving bought the Euphronios. It's puzzling to me that Hoving didn't realize where the Euphronios might be coming from via Bob Hecht because the FBI apparently has been on Bob Hecht's case since the 1950s and Hoving and Hecht met in Italy first in 1956. He didn't purchase the Euphronios from Hecht until 1972, which would be almost 20 years later. And during those years Hecht continued to deal in a major way.

Oscar White Muscarella: Hoving knew then as every museum director knew then and now. There's no difference. He's not any different from any other. Every museum director. Every museum curator knows that every dealer, I repeat, every dealer - we're talking about antiquities now, of course, - sells plundered art along with forgeries which are alleged to be plundered art.

But leave that aside. There is no way whatsoever - no way - that Hoving and his employee [Dietrich von Bothmer] can claim that they didn't know that this [Euphronios] vase was stolen. That they didn't know know Hecht sold stolen goods.

And your question reflects that. They knew all about him. He was one of the best known dealers for years. He was kicked out of Turkey. He had been caught with stolen coins there, etc., etc. He was known as one of the most notorious dealers, i.e., sellers of plundered stolen art. And yes, it was known in 1972 to everyone in the museum.

Suzan Mazur: The other question is about Sotheby's role in all of this. Scoop: Mazur: Sotheby's Pre-Auction Euphronios Transcript

It's puzzling to me why the Italian lawyers are letting Sotheby's off the hook. I mean they say that Sotheby's was led ["guided" I was told] by Hecht and Medici to do whatever they did. I mean I guess regarding the Hunt auction of the Euphronios pieces and so on. Do you see it that way?

[Curiously, Bloomberg News reported that the Italian judge said in sentencing Medici in 2004 that Sotheby's helped the antiquities ring launder looted artifacts.]

Oscar White Muscarella: To be frank, I can say this to you. I don't know the dynamics of it. But that they had some arrangement with Sotheby's or any other auction house or dealer, that doesn't faze me at all. That's normal good faith behavior [as Muscarella defines it above].

What the public should know - a lot of them don't - is that auction houses are dealers. And when the deal with antiquities, they're dealing with plundered stolen art, as well as, of course I mentioned forgeries.

So that all auction houses that sell antiquities are exactly the same as all dealers who sell antiquities. Both being dealers in antiquities. And the great majority of what they sell, I'll be generous - 95% - are plundered, stolen objects. Known to the people who sell it and known to the people who buy it.

So I don't know exactly what's going on in the mind of these two guys [the Italian lawyers] but the answer has to involve something of what I just said. That has to be part of the picture. But there's some political issue.

Suzan Mazur: So you think that Sotheby's is innocent in all this?

Oscar White Muscarella: Oh no. On the contrary.

Suzan Mazur: Tougher to bring down becaue they're a huge company and a publicly-traded company?

Oscar White Muscarella: Innocent? They've been selling plundered art for generations. I don't know that they're innocent! But what I [also] don't know, of course, is what the dynamics are between Sotheby's -- how they deal undercover with specific sellers. That I can't speak to. But that they are guilty of selling plundered art? Absolutely.

Suzan Mazur: Would it be productive for the Italians to convene, call for a trial here in the US? Would it be easier to get documents here?

Oscar White Muscarella: Well, what I would say is that they can't conduct a trial, but I think they should appeal to the district attorney. Not to the mayor [Michael Bloomberg] - he's in conflict of interest. So they can't appeal to him, can they.

But they can appeal to the governor. They can appeal to the United States. I think they should appeal to the United States. I think this is a crucial issue affecting American integrity and Italian integrity and DEMAND that since it involves international trade, maybe the FBI should be involved. I don't know. But at least the district attorney should investigate this. That they can and should do.

As such they can't, of course, conduct a trial themselves. But they can petition the United States to conduct a trial and turn over evidence that they have to the appropriate authorities, which may be the district attorney.

Suzan Mazur: Is there a point that you'd like to make? Another point? About the current issues. I mean post the announcement that the Met is going to return the Euphronios.

Oscar White Muscarella: What I would say is this. It would be humiliating for the Italian government to allow the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums who are in the same situation to demand the ransom for the return of material that was stolen from Italy.

THE ITALIANS SHOULD DEMAND IMMEDIATELY THE RETURN OF THE [EUPHRONIOS] VASE. NO CONDITIONS. NO RANSOM. And I would even say AS A PENALTY, THEY SHOULD REFUSE FOR YEARS ANY LOANS FROM ITALY TO THE METROPOLITAN.

Suzan Mazur: But they're not doing that. What's the bottleneck? What do you think is the bottleneck there [in Italy]?

Oscar White Muscarella: I'll give the best answer. The best moral answer. The Italians rightly so are so eager to get it back that they think, "We have to do this to get it back. Let's do this as long as we get the vase back."

I'm saying that's a crucial mistake. No ordinary criminal, no lower class criminal in America when caught can make a deal with his captors and say, "Oh, well, now let me keep this money I stole just a few more years and when I return what's left, you will not indict me even though we both know I stole this money."

And that's what - mutatis mutandis - that's what the Metropolitan Museum trustees are asking the Italians to do. To submit to these conditions which are improper, immoral and totally wrong. And Italy WILL get the vase back.

Suzan Mazur: But if they have a trial here to get more of their stuff back, then they could probably get documents, request documents from the Metropolitan Museum. Is that the way it would work?

Oscar White Muscarella: I think. I don't know if that's international law.

Suzan Mazur: And the Metropolitan Museum would not want to do that.

Oscar White Muscarella: They could go to the World Court, by the way.

I don't think they can come to America and make a trial, obviously. They'd have the Americans do it. What they ought to realize is that if they do win this case honorably and that means get it back immediately without ransom, then they will get a lot of other material back from all the other museums in this country. Again, university museums as well as private museums that have stolen property from Italy. I'm only speaking about Italy here, because other countries are involved also.

BUT DON'T BLOW THIS CASE ITALY. GET IT BACK ON YOUR CONDITIONS. NO RANSOM. AND GET IT BACK RIGHT NOW. And that includes the 15 objects stolen from Morgantina, plundered from Morgantina [,Sicily]. And if you have to appeal to the governor or to the president of the United States, do it.

Suzan Mazur: Oscar, thank you very much much for your perspective.

*************

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: sznmzr@aol.com

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