McNall On Hecht & Collapse Of Antiquities Market
Bruce McNall On Hecht & Collapse Of Antiquities
Bruce McNall - Image Source variety.com
Speaking with West Coast film producer Bruce McNall, the man who brought us WarGames with Matthew Broderick and Summa Gallery with antiquities' Bob Hecht, reminded me of my chats many years ago with magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes, dubbed "the happiest millionaire". McNall's enthusiasm is just like that -- maybe minus some of the millions. It's so infectious that it's difficult to believe McNall's financial world ever crumbled in the 1990s and that he spent several years in jail after being convicted for overvaluing ancient coins.
Bruce McNall had to give up his prized racehorses, sports teams, and even his antiquities business, but his love for ancient art goes on. He says he has no regrets for what happened and no bitterness toward Hecht, himself now a defendant in an antiquities trial in Rome. McNall says he respected Hecht as a scholar and considered him a friend.
He also told me he believes that the antiquities market is finished now, because no one is buying. And that he couldn't be happier in the film business.
His company, A-Mark Entertainment, has recently released Alpha Dog -- McNall's Executive Producer and Nick Cassavettes, Director. The picture stars Bruce Willis, Justin Timberlake and Sharon Stone and centers on a kidnapping and one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives, Jesse James Hollywood.
McNall's book, Fun While It Lasted , on the other hand, might just be headed for a sequel: Fun How It's Lasted!
Bruce McNall recently talked with me [See… Scoop: Hecht's Partner On The Roman Bronze Boy] about his purchase of the mysterious Roman Bronze statue which he sold to Herbert Hunt. [See… Scoop: The Odyssey Of Stuart Pivar's Roman Bronze Boy].
Our second conversation about Bob Hecht and the collapse of the antiquities market follows:
Suzan Mazur: Has the bottom fallen out of the antiquities market?
Bruce McNall: It has. There are no buyers anymore. Who's buying? You can't have a market unless someone's buying. In the old days you'd have both private collectors and museums. Now it's a headache - it just isn't worth it.
What you have in the marketplace today are either things recently excavated, that don't have proper documentation. They have to invent the documentation, which has obviously been going on for decades and decades. Or it's valueless. It's like stealing a painting from the Louvre. You can't sell it.
On that basis, buyers have virtually been eliminated. Except for a handful of pieces out there which are legally exported or properly documented, probably 1% or less of things found -- it's a tough market.
Suzan Mazur: According to Peter Watson, one of the key New York antiquities dealers has not renewed his gallery lease because the market's collapsed.
Bruce McNall: I don't know how they stay in business or why they'd want to.
Suzan Mazur: What is your view now about who owns antiquities? A few days ago you began to tell me that whoever found them in source countries should keep them. Can you say more about this?
Bruce McNall: I think it's gotten a little bit out of hand in terms of the way the laws operate. For example, if you find a Greek vase on an Italian property, is it Greek? Is it Italian? Who owns it? Is it the person who locates it? The country that owns that spot of ground? It's so confusing. To me the whole thing needs illumination.
Historically, antiquities have just been taken, smuggled from source countries. In the old days, Lebanon had a tax, unless it was something of importance.
But taking something from a known sight is ridiculous. Walking into Pompeii and taking something, that's theft.
Suzan Mazur: A lot of antiquities are found in construction sites. The fellow on the stand today in Rome - Pietro Casasanta - talked about picking up ancient pieces this way.
Bruce McNall: I'm not the one to answer, but it seems to me those are great questions to ask. Wouldn't those pieces be the property of the person who finds them? Or the person whose property they're found on? Why is it automatically the government's property? Because they view it as some historical treasure?
Look what happened in Egypt, for example, where the deterioration of objects is so great because the government can't afford to maintain the ancient art. Wouldn't it make more sense for the pieces to be in a museum where scholars can study them?
If it wasn't illegal, it would probably be even easier from a scholar's standpoint to discover where these things came from. They could do proper research. Identification. Study the role of humanity. Not just the individual country's property where they may have 58,000 of the same objects that they don't do anything with but throw them in storage somewhere and they're lost. So it seems to me there's a better answer.
Suzan Mazur: What was your view as to who owns antiquities during the years you were partners with Bob Hecht - 1974 to 1990 or so.
Bruce McNall: Same feeling. I would justify we obtained objects that I knew were probably from recent excavations for the reasons that I gave earlier. I just think it makes sense - it's entrepreneurial, in the sense of purely making money. That's certainly a factor. It's also a fact that these things should be shown more widely to people, be discussed and studied than they have in the past.
Suzan Mazur: You described Bob Hecht as a kind of shadowy man in your book. Did he ever assault you?
Bruce McNall: No.
Suzan Mazur: Because he tried to punch me one night over an article I wrote for The Economist magazine which mentioned him.
Bruce McNall: Did he. I've been present when Bob's been a little bit violent. He had a temper.
Suzan Mazur: When he'd been drinking?
Bruce McNall: Drinking added to the problem. When he was drinking he would get a little bit more testy and violent and upset about things. He never did anything to me per se. But when people would argue with him about something or he got upset, he definitely had a temper.
It doesn't surprise me that he took a punch at you. [laughs] He's not the best social animal in the world.
In many ways Bob was the most brilliant scholar I'd ever met in that field. He knew the material so well. I felt in those days especially that I could rely on him for authenticity.
Suzan Mazur: He's very tightly wound.
Bruce McNall: He was always tense. Always a sense of tension around him.
Suzan Mazur: What are your thoughts about the Hecht/True/Medici conspiracy proceedings going on in Rome now?
Bruce McNall: I'm not up to date with all the details on that. Medici was one of Bob's suppliers if not his main supplier. I guess that information came out pf some books or records that Bob kept - that's what I read. I don't know their real relationship. I've met Medici on a number of occasions. Seen his things on a number of occasions.
Did Medici get artifacts? No doubt. Did Bob buy them? No doubt. Is it against the law the way they did it? I don't know. Nothing ever happened in Italy that I was aware of. It was always in Geneva.
Suzan Mazur: My understanding is that you owned Numismatic Fine Arts and Summa Gallery but the antiquities were owned jointly by you and Bob Hecht. Is that right?
Bruce McNall: That's correct.
Suzan Mazur: Was Giacomo Medici Hecht's principal supplier for those pieces you sold to the Hunts?
Bruce McNall: A large portion were from Medici. But there were quite a few other suppliers that we were aware of during the time I bought and sold to either the Hunts or to other people.
Suzan Mazur: Hecht also bought through Gianfranco Becchina and the Turkish dealers.
Bruce McNall: There are a lot of these Turkish dealers he bought from.
Suzan Mazur: And those pieces were part of your inventory.
Bruce McNall: Yes.
Suzan Mazur: Hecht bought from Fuat Uzulmez and Edip Telli. Do you consider them Munich dealers or Munich-based Turkish antiquities Mafia as Connoisseur magazine profiled them when former Met director Tom Hoving was editor in chief?
Bruce McNall: The Connoisseur labeling was too romantic. The funny thing about Tom Hoving is he rants on about all these horrible things yet he knew everything - to my knowledge - from day one. So how can he all of a sudden decide it's bad?
Suzan Mazur: So you think that yours and Hecht's antiquities that were auctioned at the NFA and Hesperia sales in Manhattan in 1990 and 1991 were pretty fresh pieces?
Bruce McNall: I think they were reasonably fresh. Some of them may have been from some time ago because a lot of pieces came out in the 1970s. But yes, I think a lot of them were reasonably new.
But do I have absolute first hand knowledge? Not really. Because only on a few occasions, on very rare occasions would I be with Bob at the time he was doing his purchases. Mostly Bob would call up and he'd say he'd bought a fabulous vase or a great statue and he'd paid so much for it. And we went partners. That's sort of how it worked.
In theory could the pieces have been from an old Armenian collection from 1915? I guess. I doubt it. But I guess. [laughs]
Suzan Mazur: You've said you realized NFA was breaking antiquities laws of source countries but that there was no legislation until 1983. Did you continue to import antiquities after 1983? And if so, how did you get them through US customs?
Bruce McNall: Customs was never a problem.
Suzan Mazur: So you did continue to import after 1983?
Bruce McNall: I didn't do much antiquities business after that. After that things were already winding down pretty much. I was busy with other things. I can't really say I did too much, if we did any at all.
Suzan Mazur: But Hecht would get them through customs how? Take them through Switzerland? And so they were therefore okay to bring in to the US?
Bruce McNall: I never bought anything from Hecht that came through any other country than Switzerland. Everything came from Fritz Buerki [a restorer in Zurich]. So it all came in through Switzerland. Therefore, to my knowledge it was fine. The customs people would see it was over 100 years old. And that was that.
Suzan Mazur: Now the Italians have been saying that Sotheby's was "misled" about the origin of pieces you sold to the Hunt brothers that went on the block at Sotheby's June 19, 1990. In other words, Sotheby's is off the hook about that sale. How do you feel about that? Was Sotheby's misled? Or were they in the know about the pieces being sold?
Bruce McNall: They'd have to be pretty stupid not to be. You'd have to be fairly ignorant or not in the business. I don't know the Sotheby's people that well. There's one guy who ran Sotheby's antiquities department I dealt with years ago.
Suzan Mazur: Dick Keresey?
Bruce McNall: Exactly. He was quite knowledgeable about the reality of the business. You would think he realized all these objects didn't just come from old collections.
Suzan Mazur: So you don't think Sotheby's was misled.
Bruce McNall: I don't think so.
Suzan Mazur: Can you tell me what you know about the origin of the signed Euphronios vases Sotheby's auctioned for the Hunts? You say in your book that "They [the Hunts] even bought their own pieces by Euphronios, a krater and a kylix. Both were obtained through Bob Hecht and bore the shadows that all of Hecht's items carried." You said you sold the Sarpedon Euphronios cup to Bunker Hunt for about $1 million and that it was probably purchased from the same tombaroli who supplied Hecht's Sarpedon Euphronios krater. Can you be more specific?
Did Hecht ever tell you the real story behind the origin of the Sarpedon Euphronios krater?
Bruce McNall: Not really. It was the one area during the entire course of the partnership he would avoid. Having said that, I always felt that it came from Medici. That was my assumption.
Suzan Mazur: The Sarpedon krater and Sarpedon kylix.
Bruce McNall: Right. The krater and the kylix. It almost seemed too coincidental that they would be in two separate tombs and so forth. And so I'm assuming that's the case. I have no background knowledge on that stuff.
Suzan Mazur: Hecht takes the Sarpedon Euphronios krater secrets with him?
Bruce McNall: Bob's like that. Part of the mystique of Bob. He likes to maintain that sense of secrecy. He enjoys that.
Suzan Mazur: It's miraculous, as the late author John Hess has noted, none of the faces on the Sarpedon Euphronios krater were cracked. Clearly something going on.
Bruce McNall: You would think something was going on for sure.
Suzan Mazur: The Italians now have 15 extra Euphronios krater fragments they believe either belong to the Kyknos Euphronios you sold Bunker, now owned by Shelby White and on loan to the Met - or to the Euphronios krater Hecht sold the musuem in Munich for $250,000 in the 1970s. Know anything about the fragments?
Bruce McNall: No I don't. Bob was always hoping for more of the vase to show up. If it happened it was after my time there with it all. Bob would sometimes complain that the Italians - his buyers, sellers (I assume they were Italians) - would often go dole out the fragments in slower pieces to get more money for them. So he'd say we'd sort of wait and so forth.
Suzan Mazur: How mixed up in the funny business of antiquities are the banks and officials?
For instance, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan watered down antiquities legislation while at the same time sharing a close friendship with Shelby White, a major collector of ancient art and an important campaign contributor to the Democratic Party. Moynihan's wife is now co-trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, run by Levy's widow, Shelby White.
Bruce McNall: [laughs]
Suzan Mazur: You highlight in your book your recruiting of former Senator John Tunney to lobby for the Hunts for a Fed bailout of $1.3 billion following their attempt to corner the silver market -- which was approved -- and that you and Tunney each pocketed $6 million in commissions. You also say the Hunts continued to buy antiquities throughout the silver crisis.
And you've made this statement to the Toronto Sun: "I've suffered at the government's hand. . . . I don't want to blame other people, but obviously the banks I was dealing with were largely a party to what was going on. They wanted to get all they could."
What does all this say?
Bruce McNall: It was not so much relating to the antiquities world at that time. Tunney and I never discussed the antiquities business. That was about the Hunt loan deal.
The banks I'm referring to in my case would encourage my people - my lawyers and accountants often to continue giving the same statements because they didn't want any bad news.
Suzan Mazur: This is regarding coins or antiquities?
Bruce McNall: Both. Everything. Inflation of the values for their own purposes. As opposed to anything having to do with coins or antiquities themselves. Because I don't think the banks were in any way knowledgeable about anything having to do with coins or antiquities.
Suzan Mazur: Do you think the banks have more awareness now?
Bruce McNall: I don't think this is a world that very many people care about sadly. I was happy to see that the articles you've written and Jason Felch from the LA Times generating interest out here. For the most part I don't think there's enough interest in the ancient world things, this trial going on in Italy. It just doesn't seem to have caught on. Maybe more so in New York -- I don't know.
I let Jason Felch and his partner, Ralph have the keys to what I had left of my archives in storage. I said, "Here go through it and whatever you find." So I gave them everything.
Suzan Mazur: They're doing a book on Becchina I think
Bruce McNall: I think they are. I said, "Here's everything. If you can find anything." But unfortunately there wasn't much left. There were some old catalogues, things of that nature. If I had any old receipts or old invoices for Bob or any of those other guys. I didn't mind. It is what it is. And I've tried to be as forthcoming as I can be about it.
Unfortunately, even with me, Bob was very very closed-mouth. I don't think he'd have this mess if he didn't keep those journals of his own for some unknown reason. Again, that's what I read. We just really never discussed anything.
Suzan Mazur: Do you have any regrets about getting mixed up with Bob Hecht and the antiquities trade?
Bruce McNall: I'm an ancient history nut. I love the idea of actually owning antiquities for a short time or helping to get antiquities collections built of potentially important items. Regarding my business with Bob, I have no regrets. Bob was tense and difficult to deal with in many many ways. But he was a character. [Laughs]
Suzan Mazur: Did he ever attempt things like. . . according to Peter Watson, there was $1 million missing from Jonathan Rosen's books at Atlantis Antiquities and that's why he closed Hecht's antiquities gallery in New York which he financed. That kind of thing never happened with you?
Bruce McNall: He never did anything improper that I was aware of. Some people after the fact said that he may have jacked up the prices so that for example if he bought something for $100,000, maybe he charged me $150,000 and we went in $75,000 each. That's what some of my people thought. And that may be true. But I have no evidence of it.
Bob and I were friends at the time. He was brilliant. I got out of him what I could in terms of his brilliance and learned from him a little bit. So no.
And as far as the antiquities trade at that time, I regret the fact the laws are what they are. I wish it could have been done more openly.
Dealing with the Getty Museum and Jiri Frel [late Getty curator of ancient art, Marion True's predecessor] and all -- those days were crazy. I was using the Getty Museum as my personal gallery.
Suzan Mazur. Who sold the bronze statue of the Victorious Athlete to the Getty? Was it Hecht?
Bruce McNall: I think it was Becchina. I'm not positive. But it wasn't Bob.
It was a time when there seemed to be more interest in the field. It was an Indiana Jones kind of experience back then.
Now with all the fear, and the Italians, and the US government giving in to all these things, and the museums caving this easily. . . I mean if they have evidence, they have evidence. The laws are the laws and they should be upheld, I guess.
Suzan Mazur: You see the current investigations morphing into the war on terror?
Bruce McNall: Exactly. It's almost ridiculous.
Suzan Mazur: Were you asked to give a deposition for the Rome trial?
Bruce McNall: No. I wouldn't be important enough for them anymore. I'm too past the days. They know more than I know in terms of the details.
Suzan Mazur: And because you didn't ask that many questions?
Bruce McNall: If I asked, I never got an answer. I loved to ask. I would always ask. Hecht would say: "I can't tell you." And therefore I gave up after a while. I shrugged my shoulders. I would have loved to know. I definitely wanted to know. I was dying to know.
Suzan Mazur: And how is life after the antiquities business? Anything coming up there at your film company as thrilling as WarGames?
Bruce McNall: This week we have Alpha Dog with Bruce Willis, Justin Timberlake and Sharon Stone - it's doing fairly well. We have a film called Camille coming out in a couple of months. That's a business I know well that at least has no issues.
And again, when people has ask me if I want to get back into the antiquities business, I say to them that I would love to if it were legal. But it's just not. And for me especially, I want nothing to do with anything that has any questions at all.
Suzan Mazur: You sound like you've really rebounded.
Bruce McNall: I've been through it all. I've seen the good and bad. I've tried to rebound. I've taken the good out of the bad experience. If I were bitter all the time, bitter about what's happened and bitter about Bob. . . Basically these things were my own fault. I take responsibility.
Suzan Mazur: You wouldn't want to do a film on antiquities?
Bruce McNall: I'd love to. But I don't think anybody would buy it.
Suzan Mazur: Might be fascinating if you could find somebody to play Bob Hecht.
Bruce McNall: I love to hear you say that. I'd like nothing better than to do a film on the antiquities trade. But the whole market today are young kids and I don't think they know who Julius Caesar is aside from a salad.
Suzan Mazur: Who do you get to play Hecht? Laurence Olivier would have been the man.
Bruce McNall: Oh my God. He'd have been perfect.
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