Looted Art Case Defendant, 87, Is Kept Waiting by Italy’s Courts

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Robert Hecht Jr. is 87. He speaks slowly and carefully, walks gingerly, and is hard of hearing. Like most octogenarians, his memory can be spotty.

But Mr. Hecht, whom the Italians say conspired to sell millions of dollars worth of looted art, has his denial down pat. “I have never smuggled anything out of Italy,” he says.

The longtime art dealer is a co-defendant in a case in which a mountain of photographs and documents has suggested that many of the world’s most valuable antiquities were stolen. Since November, Mr. Hecht has been standing trial in Rome, but you wouldn’t know it from sitting in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. “I don’t find things much different,” he said in an interview yesterday.

Mr. Hecht said he meets with friends, goes to the library, and shuttles back and forth between New York and Paris, where he keeps an apartment with his wife of nearly 53 years.

Owing to Italy’s slow judicial process, Mr. Hecht’s trial has convened only six sessions since it began. Defendants in Italy are not required to attend their trials, and Mr. Hecht has been to just two of his court dates so far. Another court date is set for next month. Mr. Hecht plans to testify eventually – to “put in my two cents, even a nickel” – but he says it could be a year before he takes the stand.

Italian prosecutors are charging Mr. Hecht and his co-defendant, a former curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Marion True, with conspiring to traffic in dozens of stolen artifacts that wound up in the collection of the Los Angeles museum. The accusations stem from evidence amassed during a decade-long investigation of looted art that led to the 2004 conviction of an Italian dealer, Giacomo Medici.

The allegations, Mr. Hecht says, are “rather ridiculous.” He dismisses as impossible the idea proposed by investigators that many of the world’s top antiquities dealers were in cahoots with each other to shepherd antiquities to museums and private art collections from tombs in Italy, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries. “I don’t want to say there was animosity, but among the various dealers in antiquities, there is very little cooperation,” he said.

Mr. Hecht maintains that, literally and figuratively, his hands are clean. “When I see proof that an object was illegally excavated, I will not touch it,” he said.

He claims not to have known the complete provenance of many of the pieces he sold, only that he bought them from dealers who were selling them legally. Yet to many leading archaeologists, even that standard is not nearly high enough. “Objects aren’t people,” the president of the Archaeological Institute of America, Jane Waldbaum, said. “People are presumed innocent until proven guilty. With objects, you don’t presume innocence if you don’t have the provenance.”

Mr. Hecht is on trial for his sales to the Getty, but his most storied deal is one he pulled off in 1972, when he sold the Euphronios krater to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a then-record $1 million. The sale raised questions from the start, and despite investigations into the object’s origin in both Italy and New York, the Euphronios – a 2,500-year-old Greek vase – was one of the Met’s top antiquities for more than three decades.

The Italians kept pursuing the case, however, and during their investigation of Medici in the 1990s, they claim to have unearthed photographs and other evidence linking the vase to him and Mr. Hecht. In a raid of Mr. Hecht’s Paris apartment, investigators said they found a handwritten journal in which Mr. Hecht offered two separate versions of how he acquired the Euphronios. One is the account he gave the Met when he offered them the krater – that he bought the vase from a Lebanese dealer whose family had owned it since World War I. In the second story, he allegedly wrote that he purchased the Euphronios from Medici a year before he sold it to the Met.

“It’s just notes,” Mr. Hecht said of the journal, which is part of a memoir he says he has been working on for years. He explains the two versions this way: “One is true, the Lebanese story, and the other is the Italian story, which I wrote because it was amusing.”

The Italians aren’t buying Mr. Hecht’s story, and neither is the man who bought the Euphronios, Thomas Hoving, who was the Met’s director at the time. While he defended the purchase for many years, Mr. Hoving later became convinced it was stolen, and has famously labeled it the “hot pot.” Mr. Hoving says Ms. True and Mr. Hecht should try to plea bargain, since the Italians have a solid case. “They’ve nailed it totally, completely,” he said.

At least for Mr. Hecht, that’s not likely to happen. He says that to plead guilty, he would have to “rat” on other dealers, which he refuses to do. “I was not taught to betray people,” he said. “It’s not in my book of morality.”

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