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A WEB OF DEALS

Murky World of Antiquities Trade

Three men once dominated the hugely profitable commerce in ancient art. Records detail elaborate schemes they allegedly used to sell looted goods.

December 28, 2005|Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch | Times Staff Writers

He was also caught up in an Italian bust of antiquities dealers accused of trafficking in looted art in the early 1960s, but the highest court in Italy eventually exonerated him for lack of conclusive evidence.

By that time, Hecht had become entangled in another scandal: his 1972 sale to the Met of the Euphronios krater, an ancient bowl considered a masterpiece of Greek pottery and widely believed to have been looted.

Suspicions that the bowl had been illegally excavated and exported were never proved in legal proceedings in New York and Rome. Still, the scandal led Hecht to relocate to Paris, which has been his primary residence.

He has since stayed largely in the shadows of the trade, relying on a string of business partners to represent him.

His most faithful is Fritz Burki, a former janitor who took an interest in antiquities conservation as he swept the classroom of an archeology professor at the University of Zurich, court records show.

Burki eventually became a full-time restorer, working mostly for Hecht, whose pottery shards he would carefully reassemble like pieces of an ancient puzzle. It was in the garden of Burki's home that Met officials first saw the Euphronios krater in an early stage of restoration.

Burki was often identified in museum purchase records as the owner of objects sold by Hecht. When questioned by Italian authorities, Burki admitted that he had acted as a "straw man" for Medici and Hecht in sales of looted art.

Another of Hecht's partners was Bruce McNall, a Los Angeles entrepreneur and passionate coin collector who owned the Summa Gallery on Rodeo Drive. In the 1980s, they sold to wealthy collectors, with Hecht supplying the antiquities and McNall securing the capital, court records show.

When the partnership eventually fell apart, Hecht found another partner, Jonathan Rosen, who owned Atlantis Antiquities in New York. McNall went on to acquire the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, produce Hollywood movies and serve four years in federal prison for his role in a $236-million bank fraud.

Italian authorities allege that Hecht also conspired with other dealers in a scheme to drive up the price of vase fragments. The dealers would distribute the fragments of an important vase among themselves -- at times by breaking up an intact vase, the Italians say.

After one dealer donated a "seed" fragment to a museum's curator, other dealers would approach the curator with a matching piece, authorities say. Because the curators were desperate to complete objects in their collections, each fragment became more valuable than the last.

True told Italian prosecutors she also had concluded that dealers were working together to extract higher and higher prices for matching fragments.

The fragments she was being sold had sharp edges that fit neatly with other fragments being sold, not the worn edges one would expect from an ancient fracture, she said.

"I came to realize we were being blackmailed," she said. "Clearly the pieces seemed to be smashed.... It was clear these fragments had been dispersed over a huge market."

She told of a specific incident in which she said Hecht tried to sell her a piece missing from a cup in the Getty's collection.

"Bob had once called and offered me a fragment that he said he had

Hecht, like other dealers, called the Italian theory "silly," saying ancient vases are always more valuable intact than broken.

But the allegation is supported by the Getty's records, which show that several of its vases were pieced together with fragments bought over several years from a handful of dealers.

Italian authorities found photos in Medici's warehouse of several fragments of a phiale, or libation bowl, later bought by the Getty. The museum's records show that the bowl was compiled from 25 fragments purchased over 15 years from five dealers, including Fritz Burki. The first fragment was a donation and the last was purchased for considerably more than any other.

One of them came from the British dealer, Robin Symes.

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The Frontman

"I was a legend," said inmate NH7973, a soft-spoken man with a close-cropped gray beard and an expressionless face.

"One time, a man came up to me in a nightclub and kissed me on the mouth. I said, 'Why did you do that?' He said, 'Because you are Robin Symes! You're to the world of art dealers what the Beatles are to music!' "

For Symes, once the most successful salesman in the antiquities world, the music has stopped.

He's bankrupt. His primary residence in 2005: Her Majesty's Pentonville prison, where an English judge sent him earlier this year for committing perjury in an unrelated business lawsuit.

He was released in August, after serving seven months. But his troubles aren't over.

Italian authorities say they intend to file charges next year against the dealer. They say he and his now-deceased Greek life partner acted as "frontmen" for the sale of millions of dollars' worth of looted antiquities to museums and private collectors.

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