Bob Hecht (1919-2012)

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by Ursula Kampmann

February 23, 2012 – He was allegedly one of the most discussed characters of the ancient art market: Robert E. Hecht, heir to the Hecht’s department store chain, died on February 8, 2012, only four weeks after a law suit against him had been abandoned.

Bob Hecht was born in Baltimore on June 3, 1919. He graduated from the prestigious Haverford College before serving in the American Navy during World War II. After the war he benefited from his excellent language knowledges working in Europe as translator for the US Army. He decided not to return home and started to study Classical Archaeology at the University of Zurich.

He went to Italy as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome. Maybe it was there where he became involved in dealing with ancient art. Bob Hecht himself mystified his activity in the art market and those who met him assisted him in doing so:

Bruce McNall, horse breeder, owner of a hockey team (the Los Angeles Kings) and a rugby team (the Toronto Argonauts) made once his fortune dealing with ancient objects and was sentenced to 70 months in prison. In his memoirs he describes how he first met Bob Hecht:

“After the auction I was working my way out of the room, Michael in tow, when a thin, aristocratic-looking American stopped me. ‘Mr. McNall’, he said. ‘I’m Bob Hecht. If you like antiquities and coins I have some items, you might like. Why don’t you come up to my room?’
Although he had occupied one of the cheap seats in the back of the room, Robert Hecht was one of the most important figures in the entire antiquities business. In his early fifties at the time, he had thinning gray hair, and wore wire-rimmed glasses. He looked like somebody’s nice old grandpa, but he was in fact one of the most mysterious figures in the field of ancient art. Though Bob was rumored to have been a spy in World War II, he admitted only to serving in the war and choosing to settle in Europe afterwards. Whatever his past, he had become the world’s largest single source of recently discovered antiquities, which he somehow managed to locate and sell despite the strict laws limiting the movement of these treasures around the world.”

Some details speak eloquently about the truth behind this account: The metting allegedly took place during an auction of Münzen und Medaillen AG in the hotel Schweizerhof in Berne. In fact Münzen und Medaillen AG has never had any auction in Berne but in their own location in Basel; and Schweizerhof, where actually auctions take place, is not situated in Berne but in Lucerne. Bruce McNall’s memoirs are a very fine example for the fact that Bob Hecht’s actions were always suited for telling a thrilling story without cosidering reality too much. One cannot split truth, fiction and mysterium in this person.

But another thing shall not be forgotten: the Clain-Stefanellis owe to Bob Hecht their rescue to secure America. I allege part of my obituary of Elvira Clain-Stefanelli based on a longer interview with her:

“After the war the Clain-Stefanellis moved to Rome taking employment together at Santamaria company. … But even Italy did not offer a secure home in the long run. America and Russia had agreed that Russian citizens had to return home. The area where Vladimir was born had become part of Russia in the meanwhile. Thus there was danger of being deported.”
With the help of a clever Italian clerk the family Klein, whose name virtually asked for investigation, became the family Clain-Stefanelli.
“Under this name both Clain-Stefanellis left for the United States of America with the aid of their American friend Bob Hecht.”

Anyway, albeit first investigations in the late sixties the first serious accusations were made in connection with the Euphronius crater sold to the Metropolitan Museum in 1972. While Hecht affirmed that he had bought it from a Lebanese coin dealer whose family had purchased the crater in 1920, the Italian public authorities insisted on it provening from an Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri and being excavated illegally and then smuggeld out of the country.

Giacomo Medici who allegedly sold the Euphronius crater to Bob Hecht was condemned in 2004. In 2005 a procedere against Hecht was opened. In the beginning of 2012 it ended without verdict because the time allotted for the trial had expired.

Bob Hecht died being a representative of a passed epoch of antiquities trade. Characters like him did not contribute to this trade sector’s good reputation. Nevertheless we who have been born later, should beware of judging them hastily. Those were other times with other conceptions and ideals. Our current ethical and moral claims cannot be transferred to the past. Whoever acts in this way forgets that even human conceptions of right and wrong are subjected to a continuous change.

If wou want to read the article of the New York Times on Bob Hecht’s death, please click here.