Shelby White, wearing a pale green suit and a slightly tense smile, welcomed a reporter to the Park Avenue offices of the Leon Levy Foundation for an interview about the antiquities collection that has made her famous. Choice pieces are now on view, amid 7,500 other works from institutional and private lenders and the museum's own collection, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new Greek and Roman Galleries. The central atrium of the galleries, which opened this month, is named for Ms. White and her late husband, Leon Levy, in recognition of a $20 million gift they made to the museum.
Ms. White has rarely granted interviews about her collection. In November, Italy asked Ms. White to return more than 20 objects that it claims were looted from Italian soil, according to the New York Times. Two objects from the Levy-White collection that the Italians have sought in the past a Euphronios krater depicting Hercules slaying Cycnos and a krater attributed to the Eucharides Painter, which depicts Zeus and his cupbearer Ganymede are currently on view at the Met.
The Met has not been the only recipient of the couple's philanthropy: Through the years, they sponsored excavations in Ashkelon, Israel, established a fund at Harvard to support archaeological publications, and donated $200 million to start an ancient studies institute at New York University, which recently named its first director. In the interview with The New York Sun granted on the condition that her quotes had to be approved afterward by her and her spokesman, Fraser Seitel Ms. White shared her thoughts about the Met opening and questioned the arguments of the archaeologists who have criticized her.
Asked when she became aware that standards of due diligence in the antiquities world were changing, Ms. White responded that it was hard to say. "In the '90s, there was talk about provenance, but that meant different things" to different people, she said. "Even today, what is considered an acceptable provenance is unclear and changing."
In a study published in 2000 in the American Journal of Archaeology, the journal of the Archaeological Institute of America, the British archaeologists David Gill and Christopher Chippindale found that of the works displayed at the Met in the 1990 exhibition "Glories of the Past: Ancient Art From the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection," 84% first surfaced after 1973. That was the year that the AIA adopted the 1970 Unesco convention on preventing illicit trade in cultural property, and, at that point, Mr. Gill said in an e-mail, museums and collectors were on notice about the problem of looting in source countries.
Ms. White questioned the basis for using the Unesco convention as a benchmark of legality. Asked what date she would suggest as a cut-off for collectors or museums, she said she didn't really have an opinion. "You could choose a date today, but would that be appropriate in 30 years? I don't know, I'm not a legal scholar."
The director of the Met, Philippe de Montebello, last year made a deal with Italy to return several disputed objects, including the Met's own Euphronios krater, in exchange for long-term loans of similar objects. But he seems to have done so reluctantly, and in his public comments, he has vigorously defended the right of museums to continue collecting antiquities. He emphasizes that museums make their collections available to many more people than governments do and that art is best seen as it is at the Met, in the context of many cultures. "We are a world museum with an international audience," he said last week, standing in the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court. "This is the patrimony of all of our visitors."
Some collectors and museum officials argue that if uncertain provenance had in recent decades kept them from purchasing works that were offered to them these objects would simply have been snatched up by other collectors, who had fewer moral qualms, and perhaps less interest in sharing their collections with the public.
The Princeton philosopher and author of "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers," Kwame Anthony Appiah, said this is a valid concern as, he said, is the argument of archaeologists that buying unprovenanced objects encourages further looting. "These are both genuine considerations: disincentivizing further looting and protecting objects that have already been looted," he said. "It's hard to do both; it's a complicated trade-off."
Now that the market for looted or unprovenanced cultural property in America has largely disappeared, Mr. Appiah said, "we have to accept that a lot of this stuff say, in Iraq is just going to go into Middle Eastern collections, or Japanese collections, or collections in other places where they don't have these scruples."
Another collector of antiquities, Michael Steinhardt, who is a friend of Ms. White's and a proprietor of this newspaper, said he believes Ms. White has been singled out by the Italians for two reasons: So much of her collection is published, allowing the Italians to check it against evidence they have gathered in criminal investigations into antiquities dealers, and she and her husband have been such major philanthropists.
"She and her husband, Leon, have been generous to a fault to all sorts of institutions" involved in study of the ancient world, he said. "Therefore she is a ripe target. Those people who are pursuing her don't seek justice; they seek victory." He added: "Further, I would say, Shelby has stood alone, and was not as strongly defended as she should have been by those very institutions to whom she had been a too-generous donor."
Mr. Steinhardt himself lost a legal battle over a gold phiale from the fourth century B.C.E. a vessel used for pouring libations which he bought for $1.2 million from the dealer Robert Hecht, who is now on trial in Rome for antiquities trafficking, along with the former curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Marion True. Italy claimed that the phiale was illegally exported, and eventually won its return, after American Customs seized it from Mr. Steinhardt's home.
In Mr. Steinhardt's view, the disproportionate targeting by source countries of American collectors and museums "reflects the weak and inept policy of the American government." American museums, for the most part, are not government-owned, as, say, French, Italian, and British museums are. Mr. Steinhardt said: "It seems to me that [the source countries] go after that place whose government is weakest and doesn't have the courage to stand up for its citizens. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. cultural policy professionals have really, I think, done a great disservice to the cultural institutions in this country."
A spokeswoman for the State Department said in an e-mail message that the department had no role in the litigation of Mr. Steinhardt's case. "As a State Party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention it is the policy of the [U.S. Government] to assist countries that have a problem with looting and illicit trafficking of their cultural property," she continued. "The USG does not believe that the US should be a haven for looted or stolen artifacts from other countries." She also noted that current U.S. import restrictions "do permit the importation of the restricted antiquities if they carry valid documentation that demonstrates legitimate provenance" and that "[t]here are many documented collections in the world that can circulate without contributing to the contemporary looting of sites and from which U.S. institutions can continue to form collections."
Ms. White argued that the scrutiny of antiquities collectors has had unintended effects: "We thought it was very important to lend our objects, to publish and exhibit our collection," she said. "The unfortunate thing we're seeing now is that other collectors are not going to show their collections because they don't want problems. So you're seeing a lot more secrecy than 15 years ago."
Because the Levys have published their collection, the Italians have recently been able to learn quite a bit about it. According to the Times, the Italians have traced nine objects, including the Euphronios and the Eucharides kraters, to Giacomo Medici, a dealer who was convicted of antiquities trafficking by an Italian court in 2004. The Levys never bought directly from Medici, but, like other collectors and like museums including the Met and the J. Paul Getty Museum, they bought from dealers who did. In the Levys' case this particularly included the British dealer Robin Symes. (Asked about the Met's business with Symes, Mr. de Montebello said, "Every other museum around the world was buying from the same dealers.")
According to Peter Watson's "The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities: From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums," when the Italians raided Medici's warehouse in Switzerland, they found extensive records of his transactions, as well as thousands of photographs. The photographs often document a given object in several different states: first broken and covered with dirt, suggesting it was recently taken from the ground; then in various stages of restoration; then, in some cases, on display in a museum, with Medici standing by proudly. Some of the objects photographed in the initial, dirt-encrusted state are now in the Levy-White collection.
Asked if she was aware of Medici's role in the market and that Symes bought from him, Ms. White said, "I never met Giacomo Medici."
The Levys' generosity and the Met's displaying the objects in question arouse vigorous debates in the scholarly world. "Some people would say it's a problem because it's whitewashing the Levy-White name," a professor at DePaul University who specializes in law governing cultural property and a former president of the Archaeological Institute of America, Patricia Gerstenblith, said of the Met's putting the couple's names on a gallery. "It is certainly lending a major institutional backing to people who are widely known to have questions about their collection." The AIA has taken a strong stance against the acquisition of objects without known provenance prior to 1973. Its journal, the American Journal of Archaeology, refuses to publish the initial scholarly presentation of any object acquired by its owner after 1973, unless its existence is documented before that date or it was legally exported from its country of origin.
"It sends the clear message that the Metropolitan feels comfortable with the relationship of the Levy-Whites to illegal antiquities and to the continued destruction of archaeological sites in the Mediterranean world," a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and the former director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Richard Leventhal, said.
Mr. Gill was more emphatic. "The Met is honoring two of the greatest collectors of looted antiquities from the late 20th century," he wrote in an e-mail message. "It would be like naming the Kenyan safari park after the poacher who had bagged the largest number of elephant tusks."
Read these comments, the Met spokesman, Harold Holzer, responded with indignation. "This image that her critics have created of Shelby White in a pith helmet destroying archeological sites is the most fantastic, ridiculous, really obscene misrepresentation that can be imagined," he said. "Shelby White and Leon Levy bought things in good faith from dealers and auction houses," he continued. "Unlike many collectors, they've consistently exhibited their work, published their collection, supported archeological research, and lent their work to museums to round out exhibitions or fill out gaps in collections putting their private works on public view for examination and scrutiny and study. They have been model collectors and museum benefactors."
The Levy-White publication fund at Harvard poses a quandary for scholars, because such funding is in short supply. Some classics and archaeology departments, including those at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Cincinnati, have adopted policies of not applying for or accepting money from the fund.
"We felt that, as admirable as it was for them to want to support archaeological publication, we didn't want to give our name and our reputation to them by accepting funds," the chairman of the classical and Near Eastern archaeology department at Bryn Mawr, James Wright, said.
The department does not have similar policies on working with the Met, or with the Cycladic Art Foundation, of which Ms. White is the chairwoman. Students regularly do summer internships with the foundation's Cycladic Art Museum in Greece, and Mr. Wright said he frequently writes recommendations for his students to intern at the Met. Several alumni of the department work at the Met, including the chief curator of Greek and Roman art, Carlos Picσn.
"We're not such Puritans," Mr. Wright said. The Met's collection, he said, is "a tremendous resource," and the department would never discourage students from working with it or with the Getty's collection. "What we do require is that our students abide by ethics code of the AIA," he said. But, he added, "especially in this day and age, when so many students are interested in museum careers, we do what we can to promote them, and we simply make them aware of the ethical issues, and then they can decide for themselves."
The Getty recently adopted a new policy: The museum will not acquire an object unless there is documentation of its having been in America before 1970; its having been out of its original country before 1970, and legally imported into America, or its having been legally exported from its original country and legally imported into America after 1970. Mr. de Montebello has implied that the Met will not follow the Getty's lead. In a lecture last fall on the history of antiquities collecting, he showed a slide of a beautiful classical torso and said: "Frankly, the refusal to acquire and thus bring into the public domain such a masterpiece simply as a matter of principle or ideology is unacceptable." If a museum declined such a sculpture, he warned, "it would be driven underground and I do not mean, by some miracle, to the place from which it came."
While Ms. White is being honored in New York, the Italians and Greeks appear to be deciding whether to charge Symes, a dealer from whom she bought frequently through the years, with antiquities trafficking. In "The Medici Conspiracy," Mr. Watson reports that the Italian investigators who searched Medici's warehouse found documentation of a close business relationship between Medici and Symes; for some period, the two even shared an administrative address in Geneva. And Mr. Watson said in an interview that the Italian prosecutor, Paolo Ferri, has said repeatedly that he intends to charge Symes.
A lawyer who is pursuing Symes in an unrelated case and is also the London counsel for the Getty, Ludovic de Walden said: "Symes is next on the [Italians'] list. That's what I've been told."
Asked in an e-mail message whether he plans to charge Symes, Mr. Ferri replied that it would be premature to comment on his intentions.
Last April, the Greek police raided a villa on the island of Schinoussa, in the Cyclades, that used to belong to Symes and his partner, Christo Michaelides, and now belongs to Christo's sister, Despina Papadimitriou, and her children. In an e-mail, the head of the section of the police that handles antiquities smuggling, George Gligoris, confirmed that he has been conducting an investigation of Symes, focused particularly on a marble torso of a young woman that, according to the Los Angeles Times, Symes sold to the Getty for $3.3 million.
For many years, Symes and Michaelides shared a globe-trotting lifestyle. In addition to the villa on Schinoussa, they owned a Philip Johnson-designed townhouse in New York filled with art nouveau furniture and a house in London with an indoor pool surrounded by ancient busts. They drove a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley. In 1999, however, Michaelides died in a freak accident. Part-way through a dinner given by the Levys at a home they had rented in Tuscany, he got up from the table and disappeared. Later, he was discovered, having fallen down some steps and hit his head against a portable radiator. He died in a hospital the next day.
Michaelides was from a wealthy Greek family, and his sister Despina had married into an even wealthier one. At several points, she had provided loan guarantees or cash for Symes and Michaelides's antiquities business. In the wake of Michaelides's death, she and the rest of his family believed that they had inherited his half of the dealership. Symes disagreed. At first, he claimed that Michaelides was not his business partner, but merely an employee. Later, he changed his argument, asserting that because they were life partners, like a husband and wife, he had inherited all of Michaelides's assets, including his half of the business and the villa on Schinoussa. (Symes simultaneously maintains that although he and Michaelides lived together for three decades and were accepted by all of their friends as a couple, their relationship was platonic.)
The dispute landed in court, and the ensuing legal battle revealed a good deal about Symes's business practices. Because the Papadimitrious believed that Symes was not disclosing all his inventory, they hired detectives to trail him all over the world. With the help of their legwork, Mr. Watson says, the Papadimitrious' lawyer, Mr. de Walden, discovered that Symes was storing his inventory at 33 different sites.
At this point, Symes was supposed to be conducting business only with permission of the court, but Mr. de Walden discovered he had lied about two major sales, saying he had sold an Egyptian statue for only $1.6 million, when he sold it for $4.5 million, and that he sold some Eileen Gray furniture for $4 million, when in fact it was $14 million. The British judge, Justice Peter Smith, charged him with contempt of court and handed him a two-year prison sentence, of which he served eight months. About the same time, Symes went bankrupt, and Levy who, according to Mr. Watson, was supporting him financially died.
The Greek raid on Schinoussa led to a new twist in the Symes-Papadimitriou case. The police found more than 100 undeclared antiquities in the villa, in addition to photographs that Mr. Gligoris is now using in his investigation.
At the time of the raid, Despina Papadimitriou said she inherited the objects from her brother and that she would cooperate in the investigation. But, in November, a Greek prosecutor charged her and her three children with illegal possession of antiquities. Mr. Watson suggested to the Sun that this may be a tactical move to pressure the family to collaborate further in gathering evidence against Symes.
Ms. White described what has befallen Symes as "a great tragedy." She said, "He lost his lifetime partner. He has suffered tremendous financial and health problems."
Several messages left on Symes's cell phone, as well as ones passed through his agents in bankruptcy and a dealer he stayed with temporarily, went unreturned. At one point, someone answered Symes's cell phone but, when a reporter identified herself, said that Symes was out of the country. Asked who he was, he gave his name only as Peter.
Ms. White declined to comment on her negotiations with the Italians, except to say they are "amicable." Until this point Ms. White has defended her and her husband's buying practices with the fierceness and the pertinacity of a Roman general, but the negotiations may end with her conceding at least some of the requested objects.
"Have standards of collecting changed?" she said. "Of course. Nobody wants to buy something ripped off the wall."