Robert E. Hecht, Jr. died at age 92 at his home in Paris. Just a little less than three weeks ago, his criminal trial in Rome ended with no verdict after judges found the time allotted for trial had expired. Hecht had been the focus of a long-term investigation into an international network of antiquities smugglers, dealers and private collectors, along with former Getty curator Marion True and Italian dealer Giacomo Medici. Hecht was a key player in the illicit trade and, after the scandal at the Getty and the discovery of Medici's warehouse in Switzerland, a legendary figure who boasted that he never knew the origins of the pieces he sold. A charming and likable man, even his enemies in law enforcement could not help respecting him as a worthy adversary.
Which has made it that much more difficult to process his death. The few who have acknowledged his passing in the press or in social media seem to be struggling with how to remember or commemorate a man who, though charming and respected as a skilled criminal, made terrible contributions to the destruction of history through looting. Cultural Security even went so far as to wonder whether Hecht's activities have had "an inadvertently positive effect on art and antiquities." They point out that the notoriety surrounding the trials of Hecht, True, and Medici have led museums around the world to alter their acquisitions policies and repatriate unprovenanced objects, while the media attention on Hecht brought the trade to the forefront for private collectors and galleries, not just the museum community. I'm reluctant to agree entirely, because Hecht's contribution to the publicity surrounding artifact trafficking was only one of many made by a number of individuals on both sides of the controversy. But his old-world glamour and enigmatic appeal certainly did not hurt the popularity of the case. There is something very bittersweet about Hecht's passing for the communities on either side the illicit antiquities trade, and I'm not sure we'll ever know how to definitively approach his legacy. Condolences to his wife and daughters.